More than half a century after Malcolm X was assassinated, two of his convicted killers were exonerated Thursday after decades of doubts about who was responsible for the civil rights icon’s death.
Manhattan judge Ellen Biben dismissed the convictions of Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam after prosecutors and the men’s attorneys said a re-investigation found new evidence that the men were not involved in the killing that the authorities withheld some of what they knew.
“The event that brought us to court today should never have happened,” said Aziz in court. “I am an 83-year-old man who was a victim of the criminal justice system.”
It pained the sons of Islam, Ameen Johnson and Shahid Johnson that their parents died before the conviction was overturned. Even so, Ameen Johnson said his father would have been thrilled to wash his name off.
“We don’t have to take care of our backs”
“His reputation meant a lot to him,” said the son, and now “we don’t have to watch our backs and worry about the effects of anyone who thought he might have been the one who killed Malcolm X.”
Aziz and Islam, who from the outset pleaded innocence in the 1965 assassination at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom, were paroled in the 1980s. Islam died in 2009.
“There is no question that this is a case that cries out for basic justice,” said Biben.
Malcolm X achieved national prominence as the voice of the Nation of Islam and admonished blacks to claim their civil rights “by all means”. His autobiography, written with Alex Haley, remains a classic in modern American literature to this day.
Shot at 39
Towards the end of Malcolm X’s life, he broke up with the Black Muslim Organization and began talking about the potential of racial unity after a trip to Mecca. It earned him the wrath of some members of the Nation of Islam who saw him as a traitor.
He was shot dead while starting a speech on February 21, 1965. He was 39 years old.
Aziz and Islam, then known as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, and a third man were convicted of murder in March 1966. They were sentenced to life imprisonment.
The third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim – also known as Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagan – admitted shooting Malcolm X, but said that neither Aziz nor Islam was involved. The two offered alibis, and there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime. The case depended on eyewitnesses, although their testimony was contradicting itself.
Halim was paroled in 2010. He declined to comment on a relative on Thursday. He identified several other men as accomplices, but no one else was ever held accountable for the crime.
“Unacceptable legal violations”
Overall, the re-investigation found that the FBI and the police had not produced any evidence, according to a judicial file, casting significant doubts about Islam and Aziz as suspects.
Evidence included witnesses unable to identify Islam, involved other suspects and groups, and provided a description of a shotgun-wielding assassin who was inconsistent with Islam, said the man who carried the weapon. Investigators also found an FBI file on a man whom Halim identified as one of his accomplices after the trial and to whom some other clues fit.
And the records showed the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered agents to tell witnesses not to reveal that they were informants when talking to police and prosecutors, said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.
New York Police Department records showed that undercover officers were in the ballroom at the time of the murder, a fact that prosecutors apparently knew before trial but did not tell defense attorneys, according to court records. An undercover officer later testified at an independent trial that he acted as part of Malcolm X’s security team and beat Halim with a chair – a blow that inconsistent with other witnesses at the trial of the alleged bombers.
Meanwhile, a witness who had come forward in recent years told investigators that he spoke to Aziz on the phone at home shortly after the murder. Aziz has said from the start that he was home with a leg injury that day.
“There is a final conclusion: Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were wrongly convicted of this crime,” and there is no prospect of a renegotiation of the 56-year-old case, Vance said. He apologized for the “serious, unacceptable violations of the law and public trust”.
The FBI and NYPD had evidence of the innocence of Aziz and Islam within hours but ignored and repressed it, said one of their lawyers, Deborah Francois, who worked on the case with civil rights attorney David Shanies and the Innocence Project.
Exposing these injustices at the time “would have changed the history of the civil rights movement in this country,” said Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck, noting that “the bigger questions of how or why this happened still remained unanswered” .
The court record contains numerous references and clues, but does not draw any conclusions as to who other than Halim could be involved.
Who Killed Malcolm X?
The NYPD and the FBI announced on Wednesday that they have fully cooperated in the re-investigation. They declined to comment further.
NYPD police chief Juanita Holmes said Thursday she feels for Malcolm X’s family and for Aziz and Islam “if we are responsible for withholding information.”
Lawyers, scholars and others have long asked questions about the convictions, and alternative theories and allegations circulate around the case. After Netflix aired the documentary series Who Killed Malcolm X?? Early last year, Vance’s office announced that it would be re-examining the case.
“It would be great if this murder were solved, but it’s not solved,” said Tamara Payne, co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning film The Dead Arise: The Life of Malcolm X with her late father, Les Payne.
“The damage is done, but my hope … is that we learn from it,” Payne said.