Two of three men convicted in the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X have been exonerated after a New York judge Thursday dismissed their convictions.
The Manhattan district attorney and lawyers for the two men moved to vacate the convictions of Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam in the 1965 killing, and Manhattan judge Ellen Biben tossed out the verdicts.
Aziz and Islam – then known as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15 Johnson – were convicted in 1966 and spent about two decades in prison, all the while maintaining their innocence. Aziz was released in 1985. Islam was released two years later and died in 2009.
“I am an 83-year-old man who was victimized by the criminal justice system, and I do not know how many more years I have to be creative,” Aziz said in a statement through his lawyers. “However, I hope the same system that was responsible for this travesty of justice also take responsibility for the immeasurable harm it caused me.”
‘Miscarriage of justice’:2 men expected to be exonerated in Malcolm X assassination
The exonerations come after a nearly two-year joint investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and lawyers for the two men uncovered new evidence and found the FBI and New York Police Department withheld evidence at trial that investigators say could have proven the men’s innocence.
In a statement before Chief Administrative Judge Ellen Biben, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. spoke directly to the families of Aziz, Islam and Malcolm X.
“I apologize for what were serious, unacceptable violations of the law and the public trust. I apologize on behalf of our nation’s law enforcement for this decades-long injustice, which has eroded public faith in institutions that are designed to guarantee the equal protection of the law,” he said.
Vance said that, since the time of the assassination, every eye witness, police investigator and trial attorney on the case has died. He said all physical evidence, including the shotgun used in the murder, is gone, and no telephone records were obtained at the time or are obtainable now.
However, Vance said that, in the course of the investigation, his office obtained “numerous materials” it “tragically” did not have at the time and did not turn over to the defense, including “dozens and dozens of reports” from the FBI and the NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations.
“These records include FBI reports of witnesses who failed to identify Mr. Islam and who implicated other suspects. And, significantly, we now have reports revealing that, on orders from Director J. Edgar Hoover himself, the FBI ordered multiple witnesses not to tell police or prosecutors that they were, in fact, FBI informants,” Vance said.
None of the documents were disclosed to the defense, Vance said.
“The recently unearthed evidence of Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam’s innocence that had been hidden by the NYPD and FBI not only invalidates their convictions, it also highlights the many unanswered questions about the government’s complicity in the assassination – a separate and important issue that, itself, demands further inquiry,” Vanessa Potkin, director of post-conviction litigation at the Innocence Project, said in a statement.
Who killed Malcolm X?
Scholars have long doubted the involvement of Aziz and Islam in the assassination.
Malcolm X was killed at age 39 in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965, by gunmen who opened fire during a speaking engagement.
Malcolm X was a minister and a driving force in the Black Nationalist Movement who became known as the chief spokesperson of the Nation of Islam, leading thousands to join the organization. He called on Black people to resist white oppression “by any means necessary.” He left the Nation of Islam the year before he was killed.
A third man convicted in the killing, Mujahid Abdul Halim (then known as Talmadge Hayer), confessed at the 1966 murder trial but said neither Aziz nor Islam was involved. The trial rested entirely on eyewitness testimony.
Halim signed affidavits in 1977 and 1978 affirming the two men were innocent and shedding blame on four members of a Nation of Islam mosque in Newark, N.J. Halim only provided partial names, and a judge denied a defense motion to reopen the case.
In 2020, the Manhattan district attorney ordered a review of the case, and the Netflix documentary miniseries “Who Killed Malcolm X?” drew further attention to the issue.
Contributing: The Associated Press