More than half a century after the assassination of Malcolm X, two of his convicted murderers were acquitted Thursday after decades of doubt over who was responsible for the death of the civil rights icon.
Manhattan judge Ellen Biben dismissed the convictions of Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam, after prosecutors and the men’s lawyers said a renewed investigation found new evidence that the men were not involved with the killing and determined that authorities detained some of what they had. knew.
“The event that brought us to court today should never have happened,” Aziz told the court. “I am an 83-year-old man who has been victimized by the criminal justice system.”
It saddened Islam’s sons, Ameen Johnson and Shahid Johnson, that their parents died before seeing the conviction reversed. However, Ameen Johnson said his father would be ecstatic to clear his name.
‘We don’t have to keep our backs’
“His reputation meant a lot to him,” said the son, and now “we don’t have to guard our backs, worrying about any consequences from anyone who thought he might have been the one who killed Malcolm X.”
Aziz and Islam, who retained their innocence from the start in the 1965 assassination at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom, were on probation in the 1980s. Islam died in 2009.
“There can be no question that this is a case that cries out for fundamental justice,” Biben said.
Malcolm X gained national prominence as the voice of the Nation of Islam, urging blacks to claim their civil rights “by any means necessary.” His autobiography, written with Alex Haley, remains a classic work of modern American literature.
Shot to death at 39
Near the end of Malcolm X’s life, he split with the Black Muslim organization and, after a trip to Mecca, began talking about the potential for racial unity. He gained the wrath of some in the Nation of Islam, who saw him as a traitor.
He was shot 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 in prison.
The third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim – also known as Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagan – confessed to shooting Malcolm X but said neither Aziz nor Islam were involved. The two offered alibis, and no physical evidence linked them to the crime. The case depended on witnesses, although there were inconsistencies in their testimony.
Halim was released on probation in 2010. Through a relative, he declined to comment Thursday. He identified some other men as accomplices, but no one else was ever held responsible for the crime.
“Unacceptable violations of law”
Overall, the re-investigation found that the FBI and police had not provided evidence that cast significant doubt on Islam and Aziz as suspects, according to a court record.
The evidence included witnesses who could not identify Islam, involved other suspects and groups, and gave a description of a shotgun-wielding assassin who did not match Islam, the man prosecutors said carried that weapon. Investigators also found an FBI file on a man Halim identified after the trial as one of his accomplices and who fits some other leads.
And the records showed that late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered agents to tell witnesses not to disclose that they are informants when they speak with police and prosecutors, said Manhattan Prosecutor Cyrus Vance Jr. said.
New York City Police records showed there were undercover officers in the ballroom at the time of the killing, a fact prosecutors apparently knew before trial but do not appear to have told defense attorneys, according to the court file. One undercover officer later testified at an unrelated trial that he acted as part of Malcolm X’s security team and hit Halim with a chair – a blow that did not mock with testimony from other witnesses at the trial of the alleged assassins.
Meanwhile, a witness who has appeared in recent years told investigators that he spoke with Aziz shortly after the killing on Aziz’s home phone. Aziz said from the start that he was home that day with a leg injury.
“There is one ultimate conclusion: Mr Aziz and Mr Islam have been unfairly tried for this crime,” and there is no prospect of retrying the 56-year-old case, Vance said. He apologized for the “serious, unacceptable violations of law and the public confidence” of police.
The FBI and NYPD had signs of the innocence of Aziz and Islam within hours but ignored and suppressed it, said one of their lawyers, Deborah Francois, who worked on the case with civil rights lawyer 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 about how or why this happened still remain unanswered.”
The court file tells a lot of tips and tricks but does not draw any conclusions about who may have been involved, other than Halim.
Who killed Malcolm X?
The NYPD and the FBI said Wednesday they were fully cooperating with the re-investigation. They declined to comment further.
NYPD Patrol 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, academics and others have long raised questions about the convictions, and alternate theories and accusations have revolved around the case. After Netflix aired the documentary series Who Killed Malcolm X? earlier last year, Vance’s office said it was looking into the case again.
“It would be great if this murder was solved, but it’s not solved,” said Tamara Payne, who co-authored the Pulitzer Prize. The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X with her late father, Les Payne.
“The damage is done, but my hope … is that we learn from this,” Payne said.