Manhattan Judge Dismisses Convictions of Pair Among Those Jailed For Killing Malcolm X

Manhattan judge Ellen Biben dismissed the convictions of Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam for the assassination of Malcolm X.

Biben exonerated the two once prosecutors and the men's attorneys said new evidence was discovered that determined Aziz and Islam didn't participate in the killing and authorities withheld some information in a re-investigation, The Associated Press reported.

"I am an 83-year-old man who was victimized by the criminal system," Aziz said.

Malcolm X was shot to death during a speech on February 21, 1965, at the age of 39.

Aziz, Islam, and Mujahid Abdul Halim were convicted of murdering Malcolm X in March 1996.

While Halim, also known as Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagen, confessed that he shot Malcolm X, he said Aziz and Islam were not involved. No physical evidence was found linking them to the crime, and the two also gave alibis. Despite this, all three men were sentenced to life in prison.

Aziz and Islam maintained they were innocent from the beginning and were paroled in the 1980s. Islam passed away in 2009.

In 2010, Halim was paroled. He identified several other men as accomplices, but no one else has been convicted for the crime.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. explained to the court that the recent investigation discovered witnesses unable to identify Islam and incriminated other suspects through information in FBI files. Witnesses were ordered to hide the fact they were informants to police and prosecutors by agents directed by the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in the file, Vance said.

"There is one ultimate conclusion: Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were wrongfully convicted of this crime," Vance said. He added that there was no possibility in retrying the case and apologized for law enforcement's "serious, unacceptable violations of law and the public trust."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Muhammad Aziz, Exoneration, Malcolm X Assassination
Muhammad Aziz stands outside the courthouse after his conviction in the killing of Malcolm X was vacated, November 18, 2021, in New York. A Manhattan judge 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 withheld some of what they knew. Seth Wenig/AP Photo

Malcolm X gained national prominence as the voice of the Nation of Islam, exhorting Black people to claim their civil rights "by any means necessary." His autobiography, written with Alex Haley, remains a classic work of modern American literature.

Near the end of Malcolm X's life, he split with the Black Muslim organization and, after a trip to Mecca, started speaking about the potential for racial unity. It earned him the ire of some in the Nation of Islam, who saw him as a traitor.

Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck, one of the lawyers for Aziz and for Islam's family, said the review also found the FBI and police hid evidence from prosecutors, as what he called part of a plot to disrupt the Black civil rights movement.

The FBI and New York Police Department had evidence of Aziz's and Islam's innocence within hours but ignored and suppressed it, said another of their attorneys, Deborah Francois, who works with civil rights attorney David Shanies.

Biben said the case "cries out for fundamental justice."

The NYPD and the FBI said Wednesday that they had cooperated fully with the re-investigation. They declined to comment further.

NYPD Chief of Patrol Juanita Holmes said Thursday she felt for Malcolm X's family and for Aziz and Islam "if we are responsible for withholding information."

"I hope that we never revisit a scenario like this again," she added.

Attorneys, scholars and others have long raised questions about the convictions, and alternate theories and accusations have swirled around the case. After Netflix aired the documentary series "Who Killed Malcolm X?" early last year, Vance's office said it was taking a fresh look at the case.

As news of the exonerations reverberated, even New York City's mayor said the public deserved more answers.

"I hope this doesn't end the discussion," Mayor Bill de Blasio said. "For millions and millions of Americans, we still need to know who killed Malcolm X and who ordered it."

But the prospect is clouded by the passage of time. Every eyewitness who testified at the trial has died, and all the physical evidence—including a shotgun used in the killing—is gone, as are any phone records that might have existed, Vance said.

Khalil Islam, Exoneration, Malcolm X Assassination
Khalil Islam, center, is booked as the third suspect in the slaying of Malcolm X in New York, March 3, 1965. Islam, previously known as Thomas 15X Johnson, one of two men convicted in the assassination of Malcolm X, is set to be cleared after more than half a century, with prosecutors now saying authorities withheld evidence in the civil rights leader's killing, according to a news report November 17, 2021. Detective John Keeley is at right. AP Photo, File