The official record of one of the most important political assassinations in American history will be rewritten on Thursday afternoon when the Manhattan district attorney steps into a courtroom and asks a state judge to vacate the convictions of two men found guilty in the killing of Malcolm X more than a half-century ago.
A 22-month review jointly conducted by the district attorney’s office and lawyers for the two men, Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam, found what historians and scholars had long known: that the case against them was dubious from the start, based on conflicting witness testimony and no physical evidence.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office, the New York Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation all withheld evidence pointing to different suspects that would have likely led to the men’s acquittal, the review found.
Now, 55 years after they were convicted, the verdicts are expected to be tossed out in a historic rectification of injustice. Mr. Aziz, 83, will be in court and is expected to make a statement. He was released from prison in 1985. Mr. Islam was released in 1987 and died in 2009 at age 74. His relatives are also expected to be in court.
A third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim, was also found guilty, and his conviction stands. At the trial, he confessed to the murder, but said and has maintained that the other two men were innocent.
But the wrongful convictions allowed the other true assassins to escape accountability, compounding the tragedy of a killing that silenced one America’s most influential Black leaders, whose words and ideas still reverberate in contemporary social-justice movements.
The men who some historians say were the actual assassins are also dead, as well as the witnesses who testified and the police officers who handled the case.
Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., the Manhattan district attorney who launched the review, apologized on behalf of law enforcement on Wednesday during an interview with The New York Times. He took up the case in January 2020, after meeting with Mr. Aziz and his lawyers from the Innocence Project and the Shanies Law Office.
“This points to the truth that law enforcement over history has often failed to live up to its responsibilities,” Mr. Vance said in an interview. “These men did not get the justice that they deserved.”
The men were known as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson in 1966 when they were convicted and branded as the killers of Malcolm X, who was eulogized by the actor Ossie Davis as “our Black shining prince.” Their convictions rested entirely on the testimony of eyewitnesses who gave conflicting and inconsistent testimony, and there were no records of the identification procedures the police had used, the re-investigation found.
The investigation reviewed informant and witness accounts, conversations about undercover officers between police and prosecutors and reams of other documents. Some were newly discovered and some had been pored over publicly for years by historians, journalists and hobbyist seeking the truth. Key pieces of evidence were missing, like the shotgun that fired the fatal blast.
While clearing the names of Mr. Aziz and Mr. Muhammad, who were enforcers in the Nation of Islam when Malcolm X left the sect in an acrimonious split, the review does not pinpoint who was responsible for the assassination.
Though it found no evidence the killing was orchestrated by the government — a popular conspiracy theory — it did not answer broader questions about the role of the Nation’s leadership, the police and the federal government in the assassination. Investigators’ inability to ascertain the answers to those unknowns adds fresh grist to calls for a broader federal investigation.
The men whose convictions in Malcolm X’s assassination are expected to be vacated on Thursday must have seemed like irresistible suspects to investigators who were searching for the assassins in 1965.
Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam, then known as Norman Butler and Thomas Johnson, were lieutenants in the Nation of Islam’s militia and worked at the Harlem mosque that Malcolm X had led before falling out with the sect’s leader, Elijah Muhammad.
At the time of the assassination, Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were out on bail on charges that they had beaten and shot a defector, Benjamin Brown, who had set up a mosque in the Bronx.
Those charges were later dismissed, but their status as Nation of Islam enforcers led the police to them in the days after Malcolm X’s assassination. Mr. Aziz, then 30, and Mr. Islam, then 26, were tried and convicted of the murder along with a third man, Talmadge Hayer, who later changed his name to Mujahid Halim.
Mr. Halim confessed to the murder on the witness stand but swore that Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were not involved. A jury convicted them anyway on the strength of testimony from several witnesses.
A decade later, Mr. Halim signed affidavits for his co-defendant’s appeal that identified four Nation of Islam members from New Jersey as his co-conspirators. But a judge dismissed his account and upheld the convictions of Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam.
Mr. Aziz, who had served in the Navy, spent 20 years in prison before he was released on parole in 1985. Mr. Islam, who was once Malcolm X’s driver, was released in 1987. Both maintained that they had been framed by the true killers and whoever had ordered the assassination.
“They picked the right guy, because even if I felt I was going berserk watching myself get framed, they knew I would never talk, never give anyone up,” Mr. Islam said in a 2007 profile in New York magazine. “That was my mentality: straight up, what I thought was a righteous Muslim. The fact was, I was just the patsy. The perfect patsy.”
They served their sentences in some of New York’s most notorious prisons. Mr. Aziz was an imam at Attica before the 1971 riots; Mr. Islam was at Auburn when riots broke out in 1970.
In prison, both men changed their names and converted to a mainstream form of Islam, and Mr. Islam rejected the teachings of the Nation altogether. Mr. Aziz obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in religious studies. He worked as chief of security for the Harlem mosque after his release.
On the outside, their personal relationships suffered in ways that outlasted their sentences. Mr. Aziz’s wife left him, while Mr. Islam asked his wife for a divorce. Their children — Mr. Aziz had six and Mr. Islam had three — were all younger than 11 when they were arrested and grew up without their fathers present.
“When I left them, the oldest was 5,” Mr. Aziz said near the end of a recent documentary series, “Who Killed Malcolm X?” He added, “I’m a father in name, I believe, only, not being there.”
Mr. Islam had overcome an addiction to heroin after finding a purpose in the Nation of Islam. He maintained until his death that he had nothing to do with Malcolm X’s assassination, though he said he saw it as inevitable.
“He was a sitting duck,” Mr. Islam told New York magazine. “Everyone’s got their destiny. He had his, I have mine. Our paths crossed, and we both suffered.”
For decades, the killing of Malcolm X has captivated the attention of scholars with a critical question: Were the wrong men convicted of the crime?
One of three men, Mujahid Abdul Halim, confessed at the 1966 murder trial. But he also testified that his co-defendants — Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam — were innocent and that he knew, but would not name, the actual assassins.
A decade later, Mr. Halim gave two sworn affidavits as part of an unsuccessful appeal by Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam. In the documents, he named four other men who he said took part in the assassination, all members of a Nation of Islam mosque in Newark. He gave only partial names.
The review by the Manhattan district attorney’s office did not pin the crime on any other suspects. But scholars have formed their own conclusions about the identities and roles of the four men identified by Mr. Halim, who previously went by the name Talmadge Hayer.
It is widely believed among experts on the assassination that William Bradley, a member of the Newark mosque who once served time in prison on charges that included threatening to kill three people, fired the first shotgun blast. Mr. Halim identified the man with the shotgun as William X. Mr. Bradley denied any involvement and died in 2018.
The historian Manning Marable, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Malcolm X in 2011, suspected that Mr. Bradley was probably pulled into the assassination plot by two other members of the Newark mosque whom Mr. Halim identified: Leon Davis and Benjamin Thomas.
Mr. Marable theorized that Mr. Davis and Mr. Thomas were most likely directed by a minister at the mosque to plan the assassination after Malcolm X returned to the United States from a trip abroad in 1964 and eventually enlisted the other men.
Most historians have concluded that Mr. Davis was seated with Mr. Halim in the first row of the ballroom, and they began firing handguns at the leader after the shotgun blast hit him.
At the time, Mr. Davis was about 20, lived in Paterson, N.J., and worked at an electronics plant. His name appears in a previously undisclosed 1965 F.B.I. report that says a New York police lieutenant was looking for him, the district attorney’s investigators said. It is unclear what that search yielded.
Mr. Thomas, who died in 1986, was 29 and an assistant secretary at the Newark mosque at the time of the assassination. It was at his home on the day before the killing, Mr. Marable wrote, that the team members ironed out details of the plot, including that Mr. Bradley would fire the first round.
Historians like Baba Zak Kondo believe that the fifth man involved was Wilbur McKinley, a 30-year-old construction worker at the time who is probably now dead. In an affidavit, Mr. Halim said a man named “Wilbur” or “Kinly” had created a diversion at the back of the ballroom before the shooting, igniting a furled sock as a makeshift smoke bomb.
Still, historians emphasize that other details of the plot are as significant as the men who they believe were directly responsible for carrying it out. It remains a matter of debate who ordered and planned the killing.
“The question is not simply the other four men who did kill Malcolm,” David Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian, says in the second part of the Netflix series. “The more historically crucial questions are who else in Newark, in New York and most essentially, in Chicago, were active participants in arranging Malcolm’s murder.”
Since the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, uncertainties have plagued historians and scholars, and questions about key details of the case have lingered. Here is a timeline:
Feb. 21, 1965
Malcolm X is assassinated in Upper Manhattan.
Malcolm X was killed as he addressed a crowd of roughly 400 people at the Audubon Ballroom at Broadway and 165th Street in Washington Heights. He was pronounced dead later that day.
March. 10, 1965
3 Nation of Islam members are indicted in the killing.
Mujahid Abdul Halim, a member of the Nation of Islam, was arrested as he fled the ballroom. (He was known as Talmadge Hayer at the time and later as Thomas Hagan.)
Feb. 28, 1966
Mujahid Abdul Halim confesses and says the other two men are innocent.
The trial over Malcolm X’s killing began on Jan. 22, and all three men took the witness stand to deny the accusations. But several weeks later, Mr. Halim testified a second time, telling jurors that he had been involved in the murder and that his two co-defendants were innocent. He declined to name the real killers.
Still, the jury convicted all three men, and they were later sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
1977 to 1978
Mujahid Abdul Halim files two affidavits implicating four other people in the murder.
Mr. Halim filed two affidavits between 1977 and 1978 that detailed the logistics of the killing and reasserted his claim that his two co-defendants were innocent. He gave partial names of four members of a Nation of Islam mosque in Newark, N.J., saying they had been his partners in the assassination.
A defense lawyer moved for the case to be reopened in light of new evidence, but a judge denied the motion.
1985 and 1987
Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam are granted parole two years apart.
Two years later, Mr. Islam was also granted parole. He died in 2009.
Mr. Halim was released in 2010.
The Justice Department declines to reinvestigate the case.
The publication of Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” a best-selling biography that attempted to reshape the perception of Malcolm X’s legacy, spurred new calls for the Justice Department and the New York State attorney general to start full investigations into the assassination.
Experts argued that a review could be conducted under a federal law that allows cold cases of violent crimes against Black people that predate 1970 to be reopened. But the calls for a new investigation went nowhere.
The Manhattan D.A. says he will review the case as a Netflix series airs.
The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., announced that he was beginning a preliminary review of the case as Netflix released a series that argued that Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam could not have been at the Audubon Ballroom when Malcolm X was killed.
“Who Killed Malcolm X?” explored the potential culpability of the four members of the Nation of Islam mosque in New Jersey mentioned in Mr. Halim’s affidavits. The episodes depicted the four men’s involvement as an open secret in the city.
An interview with a new witness has added to the stockpile of evidence that prosecutors and defense lawyers have amassed to show two men who were found guilty in the assassination Malcolm X did not get a fair trial.
The witness, identified by investigators only as J.M., is an 80-year-old Brooklyn resident. And what he recalled of his experience on Feb. 21, 1965 — the day Malcolm X was shot to death — supports the alibi of one of the men who was convicted of the killing, Muhammad A. Aziz.
Mr. Aziz was a member of the Harlem mosque of the Nation of Islam who was known at the time of the shooting as Norman 3X Butler. He testified to the jury in 1966 that his legs had been injured the day of the shooting and that he was in such pain that he visited a hospital. He said he never went to the Audubon Ballroom.
Mr. Aziz told the jury that after he returned from the hospital, he was lying on the couch resting with the radio on when he heard a report about Malcolm X being shot. He then called his local mosque. After his call was returned, he said he spoke to a man he referred to as Captain Joseph about the murder.
Fifty-five years later, investigators interviewed J.M., who told them that he had been on “phone duty” at the mosque that day and had talked to Mr. Aziz about Malcolm X having been shot. J.M. said he then called Mr. Aziz at home, confirming that he was where he said he was, before handing the phone over to Captain Joseph, also known as Yusuf Shah.
According to investigators, J.M. told this story to a number of people over the years. His own daughter, who was present during the interview, had heard it several times. But his story had not made it into the official record of Malcolm X’s assassination.
In December 1970, an undercover New York City police officer was called to testify against members of the Black Panther Party who were charged with plotting to blow up buildings.
A defense lawyer asked the officer, Detective Gene Roberts, if he had helped to kill Malcolm X five years earlier. Detective Roberts said no, then stunned the court with his never-before-heard account of the assassination.
Detective Roberts, who had infiltrated Malcolm X’s security detail, testified that he was taking a break from guarding the front of the stage where the leader was speaking when the shooting started. He testified the assassins had been sitting in the front row, contradicting other witnesses and corroborating the account of the only defendant who confessed to the killing, Talmadge Hayer.
After shooting Malcolm X, Mr. Hayer fired a pistol at Detective Roberts and missed, the detective testified. Detective Roberts said he then threw a chair at Mr. Hayer, who was shot in the right thigh by another bodyguard, Reuben X Francis.
A photo of Detective Roberts giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Malcolm X as he lay dying appeared in the March 5 edition of Life magazine. His police supervisors privately chastised him, but it is unclear whether they informed prosecutors handling Malcolm X’s assassination that the man who tried to save the dying civil rights leader was a detective.
The police had told prosecutors that there were undercover officers in the ballroom at the time of the murder, but prosecutors did not tell defense lawyers before the trial or call Detective Roberts to testify, according to the findings of a joint review of the trial conducted by the Manhattan district attorney’s office and defense lawyers. The fact that he was an undercover operative only came out when he testified against the Black Panthers.
His testimony would have been helpful to the other two defendants in the Malcolm X murder trial, Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam. Mr. Hayer, who later changed his name to Mujahid Abdul Halim, had testified that his co-defendants were innocent. This week the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., agreed that the two had received an unfair trial and asked a judge to throw out their convictions.
“The fact that you had an active-duty New York City police officer there to corroborate that crucial detail of Hayer’s testimony is perhaps the most egregious violation that happened in this case,” said David Shanies, one of Mr. Aziz’ lawyers.
Several years after the Black Panthers trial, Detective Roberts signed an affidavit stating that he had no new information to offer that would help prove the innocence of Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam. Their defense lawyers on appeal never interviewed the detective or tried to use his statements to support their case.
Detective Roberts moved on to routine detective work, and his supervisors transferred him to a quiet Bronx precinct when he developed an alcohol problem. He died alone in Virginia in 2008, though he was married and had a daughter.
Before his death, he told more of his story to Les Payne, an author whose biography of Malcolm X, “The Dead Are Arising,” was released in 2020.
In the book, Detective Roberts said that he had known Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam from the Nation of Islam’s Harlem mosque, but that Malcolm’s killers were men he had never seen before. He had also warned his supervisors about a suspicious interruption at Malcolm’s speech six days earlier at the Audubon, which he believed was a dress rehearsal for the assassination.
“I told them I think it’s going to go down,” he said.
The warning went unheeded, he told Mr. Payne.