Two of the men found guilty of killing Malcolm X, the civil rights leader who directly challenged white supremacy before being cut down by an assassin's bullet in 1965, are expected to have their convictions thrown out.
The New York Times reports the office of Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance and lawyers for the two men announced Wednesday (Nov. 17) the convictions of Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam would be thrown out convictions after a 22-month investigation, rewriting the official history of one of the most infamous murders in American history. A court hearing to officially exonerate them is set for Thursday (Nov. 18).
Aziz and Islam’s exoneration represents an acknowledgment of horrific errors made in the 1965 murder. The district attorney’s office investigation and attorneys for the men found that prosecutors, the F.B.I. and New York Police Department had withheld key evidence that, had it been turned over, would have likely led to acquittal for both of them.
The two men spent decades in prison and were alleged to be part of a trio that opened fire inside a crowded Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan as Malcolm X was starting to speak on Feb. 21, 1965. Aziz, Islam and Talmadge X. Hayer (Thomas Hagan) were pinned with the killing. Hayer admitted to his role in the shooting, but said Aziz and Islam were not involved. He said in a 1977 affidavit that he had instead plotted the assassination with four other people for Malcolm’s criticism of the Nation of Islam, which he had been separated from and its then-leader Elijah Muhammad. Aziz and Islam, he said, were not among them.
The investigation also comes after a revealing Netflix documentary, Who Killed Malcolm X, about the assassination and a recently released biography renewed interest in the case. Neither identified who prosecutors now believe really killed the civil rights leader, and those who were previously implicated but never arrested and are now dead.
The overturned convictions also uncover the hastiness of authorities to hastily arrest two Black Muslim men on scant evidence, ironically perpetuating the systemic racism that Malcolm himself roared against.
In an interview with the Times, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. apologized on behalf of law enforcement, saying the failures of police could not be remedied, “but what we can do is acknowledge the error, the severity of the error.”
“This points to the truth that law enforcement over history has often failed to live up to its responsibilities,” Vance said. “These men did not get the justice that they deserved.”
Vance conducted the re-investigation along with the Innocence Project and the office of civil rights lawyer David Shanies. Together, they contended that the case was inundated with serious obstacles as key documents were lost, along with physical evidence that was no longer available to be tested.
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Additionally, a cache of F.B.I. documents included information that implicated other suspects and pointed away from Islam and Aziz, the Times reports. Prosecutors’ notes indicate they failed to disclose the presence of undercover officers in the ballroom at the time of the shooting. Police Department files also revealed that a reporter for The New York Daily News received a call the morning of the shooting indicating that Malcolm X would be murdered.
Aziz was paroled 1985 while Islam was released in 1987 and died in 2009. Hayer was released from prison in April 2010.
“This wasn’t a mere oversight,” Deborah Francois, a lawyer for the men, told the Times. “This was a product of extreme and gross official misconduct.”