The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Man cleared of Malcolm X murder sues New York over wrongful conviction

Muhammad Aziz, center, stands outside the courthouse with members of his family after his conviction in the killing of Malcolm X was vacated, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in New York. A Manhattan judge dismissed the convictions of Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam, after prosecutors and the men's lawyers said a renewed investigation found new evidence that the men were not involved with the killing and determined that authorities withheld some of what they knew. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEW YORK — A man who wrongfully served two decades in prison for the 1965 murder of civil rights leader Malcolm X and was exonerated only last year has sued the city and former law enforcement officials involved in the investigation, seeking at least $40 million.

Attorneys for Muhammad A. Aziz filed a case Thursday in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, marking the start of a potentially lengthy battle to secure financial compensation for the 84-year-old who was home in the Bronx nursing a leg injury on Feb. 21, 1965, when the historical assassination occurred.

At an emotional court proceeding in November, Aziz was formally cleared of wrongdoing — 55 years after the crime — with the endorsement of then-Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. The occasion followed decades of previous efforts by Aziz and his advocates to try to undo his conviction.

Another innocent man, Khalil Islam, was posthumously exonerated.

“As a result of his wrongful conviction and imprisonment, Mr. Aziz spent 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit and more than 55 years living with the hardship and indignity attendant to being unjustly branded as a convicted murderer of one of the most important civil rights leaders in history,” Aziz’s attorneys David Shanies and Deborah Francois wrote in a 59-page civil complaint.

They served decades in prison for killing Malcolm X. Now their names are cleared.

Aziz, they said, was a 26-year-old father of six when he was charged in Malcolm X’s murder based on active acts of corruption that included witness intimidation and concealing evidence by investigators from the New York Police and FBI, the attorneys said.

The city allowed the immoral and corrupt policies in its policing agenda at the time that led to Aziz’s false arrest and subsequent first-degree murder conviction, and detectives knowingly tossed aside exculpatory information in hasty investigation to make a case against Aziz, according to the lawsuit.

“The presumption of probable cause created by the grand jury indictment is overcome by the fact that Mr. Aziz’s indictment was secured based on bad-faith police misconduct,” the complaint says, adding that bad eyewitness identification was “the central piece of evidence presented to the grand jury and proximately caused the resulting indictment.”

New York Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement: “As someone who has fought for a fairer criminal justice system for my entire career, I believe the overturning of Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam’s convictions was the just outcome. We are reviewing the lawsuit.”

Aziz’s lawyers have described at length the trauma he and his family endured as a result of his bad conviction. His relationship with his children was fractured by his two-decade-long absence during his prison term, and his children grew up without their father.

“While I do not need a court, prosecutors, or a piece of paper to tell me I am innocent, I am glad that my family, my friends and the attorneys who have worked and supported me all these years are finally seeing the truth we have all known officially recognized,” Aziz said at the New York Supreme Court hearing last year.

Aziz and Islam served a combined 42 years in prison. Aziz was granted parole in 1985 and Islam in 1987. A third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim, confessed to the killing and maintained that Aziz and Islam were innocent. Halim was paroled in 2010.

Aziz was a member of a New York City mosque but Halim was tied to a religious center in Newark. It is believed that his true associates in the murder plot were also connected to the Newark faction.

Malcolm X was murdered at a time when the Nation of Islam was divided. The charismatic leader at the time was rivaled by his former mentor Elijah Muhammad. In a motion submitted by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office last year, prosecutors reinvestigating the matter suggested Nation of Islam infighting as a possible motive.

A half-century after the murder, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office was unequivocal that “no physical evidence tied Aziz or Islam to the murder or crime scene.”

“There was no evidence that Aziz or Islam had any connection to Halim, or had ever met him.”