Two convicted in Malcolm X’s death exonerated 55 years later; district attorney apologizes for injustice

Eighty-three-year-old Muhammad Aziz came out swinging Thursday after a New York State Supreme Court Judge exonerated him and a codefendant in the 1965 assasination of Malcolm X.

“I do not need this court, these prosecutors or a piece of paper to tell me I am innocent,” Aziz said during a hearing in Manhattan. “I am an 83-year-old who was victimized by the criminal justice system.”

Aziz was released from prison in 1985 after 20 years. Fellow exoneree Khalil Islam was not able to enjoy the declaration because he died in 2009. Many people doubted the guilt of the two men, who could have been cleared by evidence withheld by an FBI led by J. Edgar Hoover and the New York City Police Department, according to a New York Times report. 

“I hope the same system that was responsible for this travesty of justice also takes responsibility for the immeasurable harm caused to me … that is all too familiar to Black people,” Aziz said. 

The exoneration whipped up buzz in the last 48 hours as word trickled out that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. was planning on asking a judge for exoneration. Vance led a 22-month investigation into the case along with the nonprofit Innocence Project and New York-based civil rights lawyer David Shanies. That probe followed a parallel path with the Netflix documentary “Who Killed Malcolm X?” which introduced longterm questions on the case to the general public.

Interestingly, the developments Thursday fell on the same day that Spike Lee’s iconic film “Malcolm X” was released in 1992.

The civil rights leader, born Malcolm Little, was long a target of federal and local authorities for his talk encouraging Black people to empower themselves “by any means necessary.” 

He was delivering a speech at the Audubon Ballroom when he was gunned down in front of his

 wife and children. Mujahid Abdul Halim was arrested at the ballroom and Aziz and Islam were arrested in the days after. A year later, Halim confessed he was involved in the murder and implicated members of a mosque in Newark but the legal system did not follow up. Halim was released in 2010.

“I apologize on behalf of our nation’s law enforcement for this decades-long injustice, which has eroded public faith in institutions that are designed to guarantee the equal protection of the law,” Vance said in a statement. “We can’t restore what was taken from these men and their families, but by correcting the record, perhaps we can begin to restore that faith.”

During the hearing, Vance said the investigation was met with challenges because every investigator and witness had died and the weapon was gone.

““But what we have obtained now in this reinvestigation, are … dozens and dozens of reports, from the FBI and the NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations,” Vance said. “These records include FBI reports of witnesses who failed to identify Mr. Islam and who implicated other suspects. And, significantly, we now have reports revealing that, on orders from Director J. Edgar Hoover himself, the FBI ordered multiple witnesses not to tell police or prosecutors that they were, in fact, FBI informants.”

The FBI New York office, the NYPD and the NYPD’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association did not respond to requests for comment.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose city was the backdrop for Malcolm X’s family life at a modest home in Queens and execution at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom, said Thursday his thoughts were with the family of Malcolm X, whose given name was Malcolm Little.

“You know, for a lot of us, Malcolm X was one of the leaders that changed our minds and helped us to see that we could have a different kind of society and a better society,” the mayor told reporters. “And everyone who knows his personal journey, he went through tremendous transformation and, by the end of his life, you know, had a vision of an inclusive society that was very, very powerful.

The filmmakers behind “Who Killed Malcolm X,” which delved into the Newark angle, were jubilant over the exoneration.

Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, the historian and scholar behind the film, called the exoneration “a historic milestone!”

“Justice … at last for Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam!” tweeted director and producer Shayla Harris.  “There are still unanswered questions and more work to do, but I am so humbled and proud to be a part of the @wkmxdocseriesteam that brought renewed attention to the tragic death of Malcolm X.”

“It’s not often your work helps change the course of history,” tweeted Nailah Ife Sims, a documentary film and TV producer who worked on the WKMX series. “I’m so relieved by this step toward healing and truth … and proud to be part of the @wkmxdocseries team.”

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