US judge vacates convictions of two men for murder of Malcolm X

Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam’s convictions for killing US civil rights leader a ‘miscarriage of justice’, judge says.

Malcolm X, one of the US civil rights era's most controversial and compelling figures, was fatally shot in February 1965 at the age of 39 [File: AP Photo]

Two men who spent decades in prison in the United States for the 1965 murder of Black civil rights leader Malcolm X have been exonerated, acknowledging a gross miscarriage of justice in one of the most high-profile murders in American history.

In her ruling on Thursday, New York State Supreme Court Justice Ellen Biben acknowledged that Muhammad Aziz, 83, and Khalil Islam, who died in 2009, were wrongfully convicted.

Biben dismissed their convictions after New York prosecutors and the men’s lawyers said a renewed investigation uncovered evidence that the two men were not involved in the killing.

“I regret that this court cannot fully undo the serious miscarriages of justice in this case and give you back the many years that were lost,” the judge told Aziz and the family of Islam, who were present in the court.

“I’m an 82-year-old man who was victimised by the criminal justice system,” Aziz told the judge.

“I do not know how many more years of creative activity I have,” he said, citing “immeasurable harm caused to me during the last 55 or 56 years”.

Muhammad Aziz stands outside the court after his conviction in the killing of Malcolm X was vacated on Thursday [Seth Wenig/AP Photo]

One of the US civil rights era’s most controversial and compelling figures, Malcolm X rose to fame as the Nation of Islam’s chief spokesperson, proclaiming the Black Muslim organisation’s message at the time: racial separatism as a road to self-actualisation. He famously urged Black people to claim civil rights “by any means necessary”.

“We have obtained dozens and dozens of reports from the FBI and the NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance.

“These records include FBI reports of witnesses who failed to identify Mr Islam and implicated other suspects,” Vance said.

The investigation revealed that then-FBI Director J Edgar Hoover had ordered multiple witnesses in the case not to tell police or prosecutors that they were FBI informants, Vance said.

Many of the uncovered documents indicated Aziz and Islam were innocent – but were not disclosed to their defence lawyers at the time. “Without these files it is clear these men did not receive a fair trial and in our purview their convictions must be vacated,” Vance said.

Near the end of Malcolm X’s life, he split with the Nation of Islam 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.

Ameen Johnson, left, and Shahid Johnson, sons of Khalil Islam, whose conviction of killing Malcolm X was tossed out by a judge, speak during a press conference on Thursday [Seth Wenig/AP Photo]

He was fatally shot while beginning a speech on February 21, 1965. He was 39.

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 but paroled in the 1980s.

“On behalf of the people of the state of New York, together with the attorneys for the Innocence Project and the Shamis law firm, we jointly move to vacate these convictions on the grounds of newly discovered evidence and the failure to disclose exculpatory evidence at trial,” Vance told the court.

A third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim – also known as Talmadge Hayer or Thomas Hagan – admitted to shooting Malcolm X and said neither Aziz nor Islam were involved. The two offered alibis, and no physical evidence ever linked them to the crime.

Halim was paroled in 2010. Through a relative, he declined to comment to The Associated Press on Thursday. He identified some other men as accomplices.

In 2020, a six-part documentary series titled Who Killed Malcolm X? that streamed on Netflix had raised doubts about Aziz and Islam’s guilt, spurring New York authorities to revisit the case.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies