Two men who were convicted of the assassination of the African American Muslim civil rights leader, Malcolm X, are to be exonerated, according to a senior New York law enforcement official.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office removed the convictions of Muhammad Aziz, now 83, and the late Khalil Islam today for the murder of Malcolm X, the district attorney said on Wednesday.
In an interview with the New York Times (NYT), Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R Vance Jr said: “These men did not get the justice that they deserved.”
Vance went public with the details after conducting a lengthy investigation of the case in collaboration with the Innocence Project and the office of civil rights lawyer David Shanies.
According to the NYT, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the New York Police Department (NYPD) had withheld key information and evidence which favoured the defence and delayed the acquittal of both Islam and Aziz.
The two men were identified by the witnesses as the killers; however, they have maintained their innocence since the beginning. Aziz and Islam were then known as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, respectively.
Aziz, Islam and, Mujahid Abdul Halim aka ‘Thomas Hagan’ were convicted of murder in March 1966 and sentenced to life in prison.
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Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 as he started his speech inside a crowded Audubon Ballroom in New York. Three gunmen stormed the podium and shot Malcolm X in front of his wife and children.
Halim acknowledged that he was one of the shooters who fired at Malcolm X but maintained that both Islam and Aziz were not involved. In a sworn statement in 1977 he said: “Thomas 15X Johnson and Norman 3X Butler had nothing to do with this crime whatsoever.”
Although, Halim had identified two other gunmen who shot X, no one was arrested.
“Investigators also interviewed a living witness, known only as J.M., who backed up Mr. Aziz’s alibi, further suggesting that he had not participated in the shooting but had been, as he said at the trial, at home nursing his wounded legs”, NYT reported.
On Wednesday Vance tweeted that his office would move to “vacate the wrongful convictions of two men with more to come tomorrow.”
Aziz and Islam were released on parole in 1985 and 1987 after spending decades in prison. Islam died in 2009 at the age of 74.
“This wasn’t a mere oversight,” Deborah Francois, a lawyer for the men told the Times. “This was a product of extreme and gross official misconduct.”
Mr. Vance said law enforcement failed the families of the two men and the failure could not be remedied. He said: “But what we can do is acknowledge the error, the security of the error.”
Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project said: “The assassination of Malcolm X was a historic event that demanded a scrupulous investigation and prosecution but, instead, produced one of the most blatant miscarriages of justice that I have ever seen.
“Officially correcting the false historical narrative around one of the most significant events in 20th century U.S. history allows us to learn from and prevent future miscarriages of justice.”
A letter written by ex-undercover New York Policeman, Raymond Wood, had implicated the NYPD and FBI in the murder of Malcolm X. He alleged that both the departments had covered up details of the assassination.
The letter was read in February this year by one of the relatives of Wood after his death: “I participated in actions that in hindsight were deplorable and detrimental to the advancement of my own Black people. My actions on behalf of the New York City Police Department were done under duress and fear.”
The Manhattan district attorney’s office said that they are reopening the case after an investigative documentary series “Who Killed Malcolm X?” was aired by Netflix.