Applause broke out in a Manhattan courtroom on Thursday when a judge tossed the convictions of two men found guilty in the assassination of Malcolm X more than half a century ago.
Muhammad Aziz, 83, and the late Khalil Islam had professed their innocence since the civil rights leader’s shocking 1965 murder in Washington Heights — but only had their names cleared after a review of the case launched roughly two years ago found that they were wrongfully convicted.
“There can be no question that this is a case that cries out for fundamental justice,” Judge Ellen Biben said in Manhattan Supreme Court as she granted a 43-page joint motion to vacate the men’s convictions and dismiss their 1966 indictment.
“To Mr. Aziz and your family and to the family of Mr. Islam, I regret that this court cannot fully undue the serious miscarriages of justice and give you back the years that were lost.”
Dressed in a dark green coat and pants, Aziz stood beside his attorneys from the Innocence Project and the firm of civil rights lawyer David Shanies as he read from a prepared statement.
“While I do not need a court, prosecutors, or a piece of paper to tell me I am innocent, I am glad that my family, my friends, and the attorneys who have worked and supported me all these years are finally seeing the truth we have all known, officially recognized,” he said.
He and Islam, who died in 2009, each spent some two decades in jail for the Feb. 21, 1965 shooting of Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights. Both were paroled in the 1980s.
The re-investigation of the case was sparked by new evidence uncovered in historian Abdur-Rahman Muhammad’s Netflix documentary series “Who Killed Malcolm X?,” which was released in February 2020.
“To hear the words come out of the judge’s mouth, it absolutely took my breath away,” Muhammad said outside the courthouse, adding he saw “the weight lifted” from Aziz’s shoulders.
“It’s a great celebration but it’s a bittersweet celebration,” he said. “No one here … can give back those men those 20 years taken from their life.”
The scholar said that Aziz had allowed him to file paperwork with the Conviction Integrity Program of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to have the case looked at again.
The DA’s office, along with the men’s defense attorneys, poured over records, as well as newly discovered materials — and found that the FBI and NYPD sat on evidence of their innocence.
District Attorney Cyrus Vance told the court that then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself had ordered multiple witnesses not to tell police or prosecutors that they were informants for the bureau.
“What we have obtained now in this reinvestigation, are numerous materials that my office tragically did not have in 1965 and thus did not turn over to the defense,” Vance said. “Without these files, it is clear these men did not receive a fair trial, and their convictions must be vacated.”
Aziz, Islam and a third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim— known at the time of the killing as Talmadge Hayer and also as Thomas Hagan — were found guilty of the murder in March 1966 and sentenced to life in prison a month later.
Halim, who admitted to being one of the killers, vouched for Aziz and Islam, testifying in the late ’70s that the men had “nothing to do with it.”
He identified four co-conspirators, members of the Nation of Islam from New Jersey — but no one else was ever arrested. Halim was paroled in 2010.
“The NYPD and FBI sat on a trove of evidence that corroborated Halim’s testimony,” Shanies said in court, adding that the public was “deceived,” and that most of the men who actually committed the murder were never brought to justice.
Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said there had been an “exoneration in plain sight” for decades through the work of scholars and journalists on the case — but noted that the “state admitting that it was wrong is an enormous step.”
He called for further investigation into “exactly why” the evidence that would have served to clear Aziz and Islam of guilt 55 years ago was suppressed by authorities.
Muhammad, the historian behind the Netflix doc, also said many answers still need answering, including: “How broad was this conspiracy, and why were these two men so egregiously sent to prison for 20 years of their life.”
Even after they were freed on parole, Aziz and Islam lived with the “stigma” and “burden” of being known as two of the killers of the iconic African American leader, Muhammad said.
Near the end of his life, Islam was still fighting to have his name cleared, the scholar said, adding: “I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t think he was going to have the time.”
Aziz, meanwhile, was “cautious” ahead of the hearing, “because he lost faith in the system decades ago,” Muhammad said. He didn’t answer questions as he left court.
“He wasn’t waiting around for an exoneration because he had learned to live his life under that cloud and under that shadow for five decades,” Muhammad said. “So its a great victory. I’m so happy for him.
“I want him to enjoy his life, and the world now knows that he is innocent of the murder of Malcolm X … but again, we’ve always known that.”