Judge convicted two men in the murder of Malcolm X
New York More than half a century after the murder of Malcolm X, two convicted murderers were acquitted Thursday after decades of suspicion over who was responsible for the death of a civil rights icon.
Manhattan District Judge Elaine Pepin rejected the convictions of Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam, after prosecutors and the men’s lawyers said a renewed investigation had found new evidence undermining the case against the men and decided that authorities withheld some of what they knew.
“The event that we brought to court today should not have happened at all,” Aziz told the court. “I am an eighty-three-year-old man who has been a victim of the criminal justice system.”
He and Islam, who maintained their innocence from the start in the 1965 murder at Audubon Hall in upper Manhattan, were released in the 1980s. Islam passed away in 2009.
“There is no doubt that this is an issue that requires fundamental justice,” Pippin said.
Malcolm X gained national fame as the voice of the Nation of Islam, urging blacks to claim their civil rights “by any means necessary”. His autobiography, which he wrote with Alex Haley, remains a classic of modern American literature.
Towards the end of Malcolm X’s life, he broke with the Black Muslim Organization and, after a trip to Mecca, began talking about the possibility of racial unity. It earned him the ire of some in the Nation of Islam who saw him as a traitor.
He was shot dead while giving a speech on February 21, 1965. He was 39 years old.
Aziz and Islam, then known as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas X Johnson, and a third man were convicted of murder in March 1966. They were sentenced to life imprisonment.
The third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim – also known as Talmadge Heyer and Thomas Hagan – admitted shooting Malcolm X, but said neither Aziz nor Islam were involved. The two made excuses, and no physical evidence linked them to the crime. The case rested on eyewitnesses, although there were inconsistencies in their testimony.
Halim was released on parole in 2010. Through a relative, he declined to comment on Thursday. He identified some of the other men as accomplices, but no one else was held accountable for the crime.
Overall, a re-investigation found that the FBI and police had failed to turn over evidence that cast doubt on Islam and Aziz as suspects, according to a court filing.
The evidence included witnesses who could not identify Islam, implicated suspects and other groups, and gave a description of a killer with a gun that did not conform to Islam, prosecutors said the man was carrying this weapon. Investigators also found an FBI file on a man identified after the trial as one of his accomplices that fit some other leads.
Records showed that the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered agents to tell witnesses not to disclose that they were informants when speaking with police and prosecutors, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said.
New York Police Department records showed that there were undercover officers on the dance floor at the time of the murder, a fact that the plaintiffs apparently knew before the trial but did not appear to have informed defense attorneys, according to a court filing. Subsequently, an undercover officer testified in an unrelated trial that he was acting as part of Malcolm X’s security team and hit Halim with the chair, a blow that did not resonate with the testimony of other witnesses at the trial of the alleged killers.
Meanwhile, a witness who has progressed in recent years told investigators that he spoke with Aziz shortly after Aziz’s murder on Aziz’s home phone. Aziz said from the start that he went home that day with a leg injury.
“There is one end result: Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were wrongfully convicted of this crime,” Vance said, and there was no prospect of a retrial of the 56-year-old case. He apologized for the “gross and unacceptable violations of law and public trust” by law enforcement authorities.
One of the lawyers, Deborah Francois, who worked on the case with civil rights attorney David Shanes and the Innocence Project, said the FBI and NYPD had evidence of Aziz and Islam’s innocence within hours, but they ignored and suppressed it.
Revealing these grievances at the time “would have changed the history of the civil rights movement in this country,” said Barry Schick, co-founder of Project InnoSense, noting that “larger questions about how and why this happened remain unanswered.”
The court file lists many tips and evidence but does not draw any conclusions about who, besides Halim, might be involved.
The New York Police and the FBI said on Wednesday that they had cooperated fully with the reinvestigation. They declined to comment further.
NYPD Chief Juanita Holmes said Thursday that she feels about Malcolm X’s family, Aziz and Islam “if we are responsible for withholding information.”
Lawyers, scholars, journalists, and others have long raised questions about the convictions, and alternative theories and accusations have proliferated around the case. After Netflix aired the documentary series Who Killed Malcolm X? Early last year, Vance’s office said it was taking a fresh look at the case.
As news of the exemptions reverberated, even New York City’s mayor said the public deserved more answers.
“I hope this discussion never ends,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “For millions and millions of Americans, we still need to know who killed Malcolm X and who ordered it.”
But this possibility hangs over time. Vance said that every eyewitness who testified at the trial died, and all physical evidence – including the gun used in the murder – were gone, as were any phone records that might have been there.
Associated Press writers Karen Matthews and Bobby Kayna Calvan contributed to this report.
Copyright 2021 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.