BROOKLYN (CN) — Eight months ago, a courtroom broke into applause as a New York judge vacated the convictions of Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam, who spent a combined 42 years in prison for the murder of Malcolm X despite any physical evidence against them and despite the insistence from the admitted shooter that neither man was involved.
“That was 55 years too late,” Deborah Francois, an attorney who represents the men in pair of newly filed civil complaints, said Thursday in an interview with Courthouse News. "They should never have been arrested or convicted in the first place."
The men, who both offered alibis, were cleared after a 22-month joint reinvestigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the Innocence Project. They were charged 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.
Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan on February 21, 1965, while giving a speech to his Organization of Afro-American Unity. Aziz, now 84, explains in his lawsuit that not only was he not at the crime scene, he had been hospitalized that morning with a leg injury from being beaten by police officers a month prior. In court, Aziz's wife and friends who saw or spoke to him that day confirmed the alibi, that he had been home nursing his injury.
The estate of Islam, who died in 2009, filed their complaint separately. He was at his home in the Bronx in his pajamas when he heard that Malcolm X had been gunned down.
When he was incarcerated, Aziz, a U.S. Navy veteran, was taken from his six children, then between ages 1 and 10 years old. Islam’s three children were infants and toddlers at the time. Each spent 18 months in solitary confinement at the beginning of his sentence.
“There’s no way to minimize the level of pain and suffering that Muhammad, Khalil and their families had to endure,” Francois said.
Islam and Aziz, formerly known as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johns, were released from prison in the mid-1980s after spending 22 and 20 years in prison, respectively, including stints at maximum-security facilities Attica, Sing Sing and Clinton — “some of the worst prisons in New York,” Francois said.
“And they then had to carry the signal of being labeled as one of the killers of one of the greatest civil right leaders.”
The lawsuits each name New York City and 24 former NYPD officers, including the lead and assisting detectives on the case. They describe how investigators fed witnesses false facts and showed them photographs of Aziz and Islam, urging them to identify the two before a grand jury and at trial.
Investigators hid “a tremendous amount of evidence” from Aziz and Islam, and even from prosecutors, that would have exonerated the men, including documents and information from undercover officers and informants, the complaints say.
One allegation undergirding the complaints is that Aziz and Islam's fates “were not a random miscarriage of justice in an otherwise functioning law enforcement regime.” Francois instead levels blame at dirty policing by the Bureau of Special Services and Investigations — a since-disbanded entity borne out of the “Red Squad” that documented and monitored communist activities.
Ascribing these officers with forgeries, poison-pen letters and fomenting conflict, the suits say the bureau “infiltrated, conducted countermeasures, and spied on individuals and political and social groups." In the 1960s it targeted Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.
“Under the City’s policies, customs, and practices, officials were permitted and encouraged to refrain from making any record of Brady information, despite the fact that disclosure of such information was and is constitutionally required regardless of whether the information was recorded in written form,” the complaints state.
“Officials were trained on avoiding the creation of Brady material, instructed not to disclose Brady information if they could rationalize non-disclosure by subjectively assessing the information as ‘unreliable’ or ‘incredible,’ and encouraged to cover up Brady information kept hidden by others.”
Former Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance apologized last year for the failure in the system when state Supreme Court Justice Ellen Biben granted a joint motion to vacate Aziz and Islam's convictions.
“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,” said Vance, who was succeeded in January by DA Alvin Bragg.
Judge Biben acknowledged the limitations of vacating the convictions. “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,” she said.
Aziz and Islam's lawsuits followed settlement talks with the city’s comptroller that did not reach agreement, according to Francois, who agreed with the judge and district attorney that no amount of money could possibly restore the decades of life lost by her clients.
“Khalil died in 2009 without ever seeing his name cleared,” Francois said. “Neither Muhammad nor Khalil’s family should have to wait a second longer to get the compensation that they deserve.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams said his office is reviewing the lawsuits.
“As someone who has fought for a fairer criminal justice system for my entire career," Adams said in a statement, "I believe the overturning of Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam’s convictions was the just outcome."