Two men convicted in assassination of Malcolm X to be exonerated
Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam to be cleared as prosecutors say authorities withheld evidence
Two men convicted in the assassination of Malcolm X are set to be cleared after more than half a century, with prosecutors now saying authorities withheld evidence in the civil rights leader’s killing.
Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam, who were incarcerated for a combined 42 years for the crime, were being exonerated after a nearly two-year investigation by their lawyers and the Manhattan district attorney’s office. A court date is expected on Thursday.
“This points to the truth that law enforcement over history has often failed to live up to its responsibilities,” the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr, told the New York Times, which first reported the news. “These men did not get the justice that they deserved.”
One of the civil rights era’s most polemical yet inspiring figures, Malcolm X rose to fame while advocating Black power as the Nation of Islam’s chief spokesperson. He famously urged Black people to claim civil rights “by any means necessary”.
The revered leader was gunned down as he began a speech in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom on 21 February 1965. He had left the Nation of Islam a year earlier, and had conceived of a new project, the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
A Netflix documentary miniseries, Who Killed Malcolm X? reignited interest in the historic case last year, rekindling suspicions that the US justice system had targeted the wrong men.
Aziz, Islam and a third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim – known at the time of the killing as Talmadge Hayer and later as Thomas Hagan – were convicted of murder in March 1966 and sentenced to life in prison.
Halim confessed that he was one of three gunmen who attacked Malcolm X, but he testified that neither Aziz nor Islam were involved. They also maintained their innocence.
Decades later, the men’s lawyers, the Innocence Project and the Manhattan district attorney’s office have pieced together the crime, although there are few living witnesses or potential suspects, and documents and physical evidence are largely unavailable.
Even with those hurdles, they found enough to conclude that a new jury very well might have acquitted the two men. The investigation uncovered a living witness who supported Aziz’s alibi that he had been at home the day of the assassination, FBI documents about other suspects, and more.
“This wasn’t a mere oversight,” lawyer Deborah Francois told the Times. “This was a product of extreme and gross official misconduct.”
Aziz, who was called Norman 3X Butler at the time of the shooting, was released in 1985. He is now 83 years old. Islam, formerly Thomas 15X Johnson, was released two years later and died in 2009.
The two collectively spent years in solitary confinement, according to the Times. They languished behind bars at some of New York’s most infamous maximum-security prisons. Both had children when they were locked away, and their marriages crumbled.
“It affected them in every way you could possibly imagine,” said civil rights lawyer David Shanies. “Them and their families.”