Two of three men convicted in the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X have been exonerated after a New York judge dismissed their convictions Thursday.
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 15X 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 the court, 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 assassination, 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.
Vanessa Potkin, director of post-conviction litigation at the Innocence Project, said in a statement that the “recently unearthed evidence” both invalidates the convictions and raises new concerns.
“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,” Potkin said.
Who killed Malcolm X?
Scholars, historians and journalists have long doubted the involvement of Aziz and Islam in the assassination.
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. He called on Black people to resist white oppression “by any means necessary.”
Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam the year before he was killed. He was 39 on Feb. 21, 1965, when gunmen opened fire as he began speaking before hundreds of people gathered in the crowd at Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom.
Mujahid Abdul Halim – also known as Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagan – ran on stage, approached Malcolm X and shot him repeatedly, according to the court filing. Other gunmen fled, but Halim was shot in the leg by one of Malcolm X’s bodyguards and apprehended.
Halim confessedat the 1966 murder trial to shooting Malcolm X but said neither Aziz nor Islam was involved. The trial rested entirely on eyewitness testimony. No physical evidence tied Aziz or Islam to the killing or crime scene, and there was no evidence that Aziz or Islam had any connection to Halim or had ever met him, the filing said.
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 New Jersey. Halim only provided partial names, and a judge denied a defense motion to reopen the case.
In Jan. 2020, the Manhattan district attorney ordered a review of the case, and the Netflix documentary miniseries “Who Killed Malcolm X?” released the following month drew further attention to the issue.
The recent investigation did not specify other suspects, according to the motion filed Thursday. “Many of the other suspects who were not arrested are deceased or could not be located,” the filing said.
Investigators found that “many important papers,” including parts of the district attorney’s file and NYPD records, were lost, and complete records of the identification procedures conducted by NYPD were “missing.”
According to the filing, there were no lineup photographs or copies of photo-arrays and no reports detailing what methods police and prosecutors used to conduct identification procedures. There were also no records of what the police and prosecutors said to witnesses prior to identifying Aziz and Islam.
“In short, it is unknown whether the identification procedures used in this case were properly conducted,” the motion said.
One of the FBI documents not disclosed to counsel, for example, included a detailed description of one of the suspects that did not match a description of Islam, according to the filing.
Investigators found that prosecutors were aware three undercover NYPD detectives were present at the time of the assassination but that “there is no record of this information having been disclosed to the defendants,” according to the filing.
Investigators also interviewed an 80-year-old man known as “J.M.” who had joined the Nation Of Islam around 1959 and said he knew Malcolm X, Aziz and Islam. The man told investigators that he called Aziz’s home phone and spoke with Aziz shortly after the shooting.
Contributing: The Associated Press