MANHATTAN (CN) — Citing “serious miscarriages of injustice” that includes the FBI and NYPD’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, a New York Supreme Court judge on Thursday formally vacated the murder convictions of Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam who spent a combined 42 years in prison for the 1965 murder of Malcolm X.
Aziz, who was released from prison in 1985, spoke briefly at the hearing on Thursday in which State Supreme Court Justice Ellen Biben granted a joint motion to vacate his conviction, as well as that of the late Islam, and dismiss their underlying indictments.
“I do not need this court, these prosecutors or a piece of paper to tell me I am innocent. I am an 83-year-old who was victimized by the criminal justice system," Aziz said.
“I hope the same system that was responsible for this travesty of justice also takes responsibility for the immeasurable harm caused to me,” he continued, remarking that such wrongful convictions are “all too familiar to Black people.”
The near-capacity courtroom of the 15th floor the Manhattan Criminal Courts building broke out in applause as Aziz and Islam were cleared.
For over half a century, the two men maintained their innocence about the gunning down of Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. No physical evidence ever linked them to the crime, and Aziz and Islam, known then as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johns, even offered alibis. Nevertheless in March 1966, they were convicted along with a third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim, who admitted to shooting the iconic civil rights leader and denied that Aziz and Islam were involved.
Halim, also known as Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagan, was paroled in 2010. He identified some other men as accomplices, but no one else has ever been held accountable for the crime.
“There can be no question that this is a case that cries out for fundamental justice,” Judge Biben said Thursday. “I regret that this court cannot fully undo the serious miscarriages of injustice in this case and give you back the many years that you lost.”
The hearing followed a 22-month joint reinvestigation by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and the Innocence Project, culminating in the 43-page motion to vacate.
“We are moving today to vacate the convictions and dismiss the indictments of Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam for the assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965,” Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance said in court on Thursday. “But I want to begin by saying directly to Mr. Aziz and his family, to the family of Mr. Islam, and the family of Malcolm X, that I apologize for what were serious, unacceptable violations of the law and the public trust. 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.
“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,” added Vance, who will be stepping down from DA’s office at the end of year.
Vance pointed to newly uncovered exculpatory evidence, including FBI reports of witnesses who failed to identify Islam and who implicated other suspects, which were never disclosed to the defense. “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,” Vance said on Thursday.
Exoneration came over a decade too late for Islam, who spent more than two decades behind bars, was paroled in 1987, and died in 2009. Like Aziz, Islam spent a chunk of his sentence in solitary confinement.
“My father’s exoneration is a welcome but long overdue relief to our entire family,” Khalil Islam’s eldest son, who shares his father’s name, said in a statement Thursday. “We are pleased to see justice finally being served, but it is heartbreaking to know that he passed away without ever seeing his name cleared for his wrongful conviction. To the day he died he never stopped fighting to prove his innocence.”
Vanessa Potkin, from the Innocence Project, said at Thursday’s hearing that the exonerating evidence invites further investigation into law enforcement’s role in the historic killing. “The recently unearthed evidence of Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam's innocence that had been hidden by the NYPD and FBI not only invalidates their convictions, it also highlights the many unanswered questions about the government's complicity in the assassination — a separate and important issue that, itself, demands further inquiry,” Potkin said Thursday.
Vance noted that his office had “complete, open-file collaboration” with the Innocence Project and the Shanies Law Office, both of which co-signed the motion to vacate.
Attorney David B. Shanies on Thursday echoed the description of exoneration as a “long overdue milestone” for Islam and Aziz.
“These innocent men experienced the agony of decades in prison for a crime they did not commit,” he said. “They were robbed of their freedom in the prime of their lives and branded the killers of a towering civil rights leader. Muhammad is now 83, and Khalil passed away years ago without ever having had the chance to see his name cleared."
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.
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