The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in New York has announced it will launch a review of the investigation into the 1965 assassination of civil rights leader Malcolm X that could potentially lead to a reinvestigation of the case.
Malcolm, a firebrand in his lifetime who laid the intellectual foundations for the Black Power and black consciousness movements in the US, was assassinated by gunmen as he gave a lecture at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.
Three members of the Nation of Islam were later arrested for the killings. Despite previously helping to lead the group, which mixed black nationalism with Islamic teachings, the killing came after Malcolm had a falling out with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad over the organisation’s political direction. Malcolm had faced death threats and his home was firebombed shortly before he was killed.
Questions of police and prosecutorial mistakes and misconduct have long loomed over the investigation, with many believing two of the three men found guilty were wrongfully convicted. Meanwhile, critics allege the shoddy law enforcement had let others involved in the killing walk free.
The Innocence Project, a non-profit group working with a civil rights lawyer on behalf of one of the convicted men, now 81-year-old Muhammad Abdul Aziz, said the review of the investigation came “in light of new information uncovered” in the Netflix documentary, Who Killed Malcolm X?, which premiered on Friday and probes unanswered questions in the case.
A spokesman for the Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr said his office decided to “begin a preliminary review of the matter” after Vance met representatives from the Innocence Project and Aziz’s lawyer.
The review “will inform the office regarding what further investigative steps may be undertaken”, spokesman Danny Frost said in a statement.
Aziz, who was known as Norman 3X Butler when he was arrested, and Khalil Islam, known previously as Thomas 15X Johnson, have maintained their innocence since their 1966 conviction. Islam died in 2009.
“This wrongful conviction shaped lives other than mine,” Aziz says in the documentary. “Everyone’s been affected by this. A whole generation. Children, grandchildren, this whole thing produced issues that have caused a fissure, a separation, a distance in my family.”
The third convicted man, Mujahid Abdul Halim, who was known also as Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagan, confessed to being the assassin, but said during his 1966 trial that Aziz and Islam “had nothing to do with it”.
“I was there, I know what happened and I know the people who were there,” he said, according to a New York Times report from that year.
Senior Trial Counsel Peter Casolaro and Conviction Integrity Deputy Chief Charles King will lead the preliminary review, according to Vance’s office. Casolaro had previously helped to overturn the convictions of five teens wrongfully convicted of the rape of a jogger in Manhattan’s Central Park in 1989. The accused teens became known as the Central Park Five.
The Netflix documentary follows Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, a Washington, DC, activist as he investigates Malcolm’s killing and uncovers information that may suggest the wrong men went to prison.
Muhammad, on Facebook, said he was pleased to see that prosecutor Casolaro had been assigned to the case.
“I am feeling more confident by the day that Muhammad Abdul Aziz, the former Norman 3X Butler, will be exonerated for the murder of Malcolm X,” he wrote shortly after the review of the investigation had been announced.
According to the Innocence Project, no physical evidence ever connected Aziz or Islam to the crime and Aziz had several alibis at the time of the killing. The group also said civil rights lawyer William Kunstler had previously obtained undisclosed FBI documents that supported an account of the killing given by Halim in 1978, in which he identified four other co-conspirators, gave their addresses, and provided a detailed timeline of the assassination.
“We are grateful that District Attorney Vance quickly agreed to conduct a review of the conviction of Muhammad Aziz,” said Barry Scheck, the co-founder of the Innocence Project, in a statement.
“Given the historical importance of this case and the fact that our client is 81 years old, we are especially encouraged that Mr Vance has assigned two highly respected prosecutors, Peter Casolaro and Charles King, to work on this re-investigation,” said Scheck.