The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Muhammad Aziz, center, stands outside the New York courthouse with members of his family on Thursday after his conviction was vacated in the 1965 killing of Malcolm X. (Seth Wenig/AP)

NEW YORK — Muhammad A. Aziz was in his mid-20s when a jury in New York Supreme Court concluded, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was one of Malcolm X’s assassins.

On Thursday, at age 83, he was summoned to the same Manhattan courthouse and told it was all a tragic mistake. Standing before a judge who was a toddler at the time of his conviction, Aziz said his struggle reflects what is still a reality for Black people in America.

“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,” he said.

Minutes later, New York Supreme Court Justice Ellen Biben dismissed the first-degree murder convictions of Aziz and the late Khalil Islam, who served a combined 42 years in prison and were paroled in 1985 and 1987, respectively.

The conviction of a third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim — who confessed to the killing and has always said Aziz and Islam were innocent — remains in place.

Biben acted in response to a joint motion filed by attorneys for Aziz and Islam’s family and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., which said the convictions were tainted by conflicting eyewitness testimony, withheld documents, seemingly solid alibis and other exculpatory evidence exposed by historians, journalists and filmmakers.

Vance opened the hearing by apologizing for deep flaws in the decades-old prosecution, saying: “It was clear these men did not receive a fair trial.”

Shahid Johnson, son of Khalil Islam who was convicted for the killing of Malcolm X, said that there was lingering sadness after the exoneration of his father. (Video: Reuters)

Read the motion seeking to overturn the convictions of Aziz and Islam

Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz, who was in the courtroom and supported the dismissal, issued a statement calling on law enforcement to bring to justice “all parties involved in the orchestrated killing of our father.” But Vance said there was no way to retry the famous murder case with most witnesses dead and major pieces of evidence missing.

The overturning of the convictions opens the door for Islam’s family and Aziz to sue the city and state for compensation — for their years in jail and a lifetime of being linked to a notoriously brutal assassination. Lawyers for Aziz are likely to push for a quick settlement because of his age.

“Before, during, and after these men’s trial, the NYPD and FBI covered up a tremendous amount of evidence of their innocence, hiding it even from the District Attorney,” said David Shanies, an attorney who teamed up with the Innocence Project to represent Aziz and the Islam family.
“. . . [Most] of the men who murdered Malcolm X never faced justice.”

Biben, too, apologized. “There can be no question this is a case that cries out for fundamental justice,” she said. “To Mr. Aziz and your family, and to the family of Mr. Islam, I regret that this court cannot fully undo the serious miscarriages of justice in this case and give you back the many years that were lost.”

Two of Islam’s grown children, Ameen and Shahid Johnson, also attended the hearing, which they described as “bittersweet.” They said the wrongful conviction was an immense burden on their father, who died in 2009, and their entire family, including their late mother, who raised them alone while Islam was imprisoned.

Later, they said, Islam struggled to reintegrate into society and fought to establish bonds with the sons he barely knew.

Aziz’s younger sister Darlene, 65, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used, said her brother’s conviction fractured their family as well. The court proceeding was a formality in her mind, she said: “I already knew he was innocent.”

Malcolm X: A quick guide to what you need to know about his life and death

The probe of the long-ago trials stretched nearly two years, with prosecutors working to untangle a messy and incomplete trove of records, including elements of law enforcement files that Biben said could have substantially changed the outcome of the trial. The investigation launched after publicity generated by research into the assassination, including for a recent Netflix docuseries, “Who killed Malcolm X?”

In their motion, prosecutors noted that the deaths of relevant witnesses and the failure to keep evidence from decades ago made it impossible to prove unequivocally that Aziz and Islam were “actually innocent,” which would require a higher legal standard. Still, the investigation made clear the case against them was shoddy.

“We are left only with the trial record, which is inadequate to assess the certainty and strength of each eyewitness,” the 43-page filing says. “Most of the relevant physical evidence is not available for informative forensic testing.”

Malcolm X was gunned down by three shooters at the Audubon Ballroom at West 165th Street and Broadway on Feb. 21, 1965. His speech, in front of a large crowd of devotees, followed a contentious split he had with the Nation of Islam organization and its founder, Elijah Muhammad.

The Netflix series examined whether Nation of Islam members from Newark, rather than Aziz and Islam, were to blame for Malcolm X’s murder. Aziz and Islam, who at the time were known as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, respectively, were members of a Nation of Islam mosque in Harlem. Both denied being at the Audubon Ballroom the day Malcolm X was killed or having anything to do with the assassination.

Halim, the convicted shooter formerly known as Talmadge Hayer, was based in Newark. Years ago, he signed an affidavit naming his alleged associates in the assassination plot, who he said were also from the Newark mosque.

Did a Black undercover detective unwittingly aid Malcolm X’s assassination?

The district attorney’s office did not establish a motive for the killing as part of its probe, but it noted in its court filing that there was hostility between Malcolm X and his former group.

At trial, prosecutors presented a theory that Aziz and Halim caused a diversion while Islam approached the stage with a
12-gauge shotgun, firing two rounds. Aziz and Halim then allegedly fired their weapons as well. But eyewitnesses gave conflicting descriptions of the second and third gunmen, and where they allegedly were when the attack began.

“No physical evidence tied Aziz or Islam to the murder or crime scene,” the motion to vacate the convictions says. “There was no evidence that Aziz or Islam had any connection to Halim, or had ever met him.”

Years after the murder, it was revealed that an undercover NYPD officer who had infiltrated Malcolm X’s inner circle was present for the murder. His role was kept secret from prosecutors, and he was never interviewed. The jury did not have the benefit of hearing his account.

FBI records examined during the reinvestigation pointed to the possibility of another shotgun suspect — a man with a markedly different physical description from Islam’s. The Netflix series identified Newark resident and mosque member William Bradley, who is now deceased, as a person potentially involved.

Bradley was one of the
four alleged accomplices listed in Halim’s affidavit.

Malcolm X didn’t fear being killed: ‘I live like a man who is dead already’

Maryland hospital system drops race-based algorithm, citing harm to Black patients

Decades later, JFK’s assassination still brings pilgrims to his grave