After a two-year re-investigation, it was discovered that evidence that would have benefited the defense in the trial of Muhammad Aziz, now 83, and the late Khalil Islam was withheld, according to their attorneys, the Innocence Project and civil rights lawyer David Shanies.
Describing his conviction, Aziz said that it was “the result of a process that was corrupt to its core—one that is all too familiar.”
“I do not need a court, prosecutors or a piece of paper to tell me I am innocent,” he said in a statement. But he said he was glad his family, friends, and lawyers would get to see “the truth we have all known, officially recognized.”
The Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr stated that he would join the men’s legal team in requesting that the judge toss out the convictions on Thursday.
“These men did not get the justice that they deserved,” Vance told The New York Times, which first reported on the developments. Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck called the case “one of the most blatant miscarriages of justice that I have ever seen.”
After leaving the Nation of Islam, and establishing the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X was assassinated while giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on Feb. 21, 1965. He was 39.
Aziz, Islam, and another man, Mujahid Abdul Halim, who was also known as Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagan, were all convicted of murder in March 1966; they were sentenced to life in prison.
Hagan admitted that he was the lone gunman and testified that Aziz and Islam were involved. Known then as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, both men maintained throughout that they were innocent and offered alibis at their 1966 trial.
No physical evidence was ever introduced that linked either man to the crime.
“Thomas 15 Johnson and Norman 3X Butler had nothing to do with this crime whatsoever,” Hagan said in a sworn statement in 1977.
Hagan was paroled back in 2010. Although he identified two other men as gunmen, no one else was ever arrested.
During the re-investigation, it was discovered that the FBI had documented leads that pointed to other possible suspects and a witness that was still alive at the time, corroborated Aziz’s alibi of being home nursing a leg injury at the time of the shooting.
The witness, known as “J.M.,” who was never interviewed before said he spoke to Aziz on the latter’s home phone the day of the killing.
Furthermore, the review found that prosecutors never disclosed that undercover officers were present in the ballroom during the shooting and that the New York Daily News received a call earlier that day that Malcolm X would be murdered.
Eventually, Aziz was released in 1985 and Islam in 1987.
Both continued to push to have their names cleared until Islam passed away in 2009.
“Exonerating these men is a righteous and well-deserved affirmation of their true character,” Shanies said in a statement.
Deborah Francois, an associate counsel in the D.A.'s office, called the convictions “the product of gross official misconduct and a criminal justice system weighed against people of color.”
According to the Manhattan district attorney’s office, it acknowledged that they were led to reopening the case after Netflix aired the documentary series Who Killed Malcolm X?, which examined theories of whom really killed the influential civil rights leader.