Two men convicted for the shooting death of activist and prominent Civil Rights leader Malcolm X are set to be exonerated decades after the tragedy. The New York Times reported Muhammed Aziz and Khalil Islam will have their convictions overturned after an investigation uncovered evidence previously withheld by law enforcement. According to the Times, both Aziz and Islam spent more than 20 years in prison despite a questionable case from the beginning and widespread belief in their innocence.
Police arrested the two men who were known as Nation of Islam members Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson at the time and Nation of Islam member Talmadge Hayer for the Feb. 21, 1965 assassination. Both Aziz and Islam maintained their innocence and Hayer, who confessed, also claimed the two were not involved.
“It’s long overdue,” said Bryan Stevenson a civil rights lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice initiative. “This is one of the most prominent figures of the 20th century who commanded enormous attention and respect. And yet, our system failed.”
“This points to the truth that law enforcement over history has often failed to live up to its responsibilities,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. “These men did not get the justice that they deserved.”
Islam was released from prison in 1987 and passed away in 2009. Aziz was issued parole in 1985. Vance along with attorneys representing Aziz and Islam conducted a 22-month joint investigation. Their extensive work found the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the New York Police Department (NYPD) withheld key evidence that would likely have led to the men’s acquittal. Other suspects who have been previously suggested as the actual gunmen but evaded being arrested are now dead.
“God bless you, they’re exonerated,” said Hayer, who now goes by Mujahid Abdul Halim, to the Times.
“This wasn’t a mere oversight,” explained Deborah Francois, a lawyer for the men. “This was a product of extreme and gross official misconduct.”
Evidence revealed to not have been overturned included FBI documents implicating other subjects, prosecutors’ notes that share the presence of NYPD undercover officers at the crime scene during the shooting was not disclosed, and the fact that a reporter for The New York Daily News received a call the morning of the crime that declared that Malcolm X would be murdered.
At the trial, both Islam and Aziz offered credible alibies supported by testimony from their spouses, friends, and others. With this fact, the men were still convicted alongside Hayer on March 11, 1966, and sentenced to life in prison.
“It undermines already tenuous and fragile confidence in the rule of law to protect Black voices that were challenging bigotry and discrimination,” said Stevenson. “And it also just represented our continuing problem with reliability and fairness, and those are the problems that we’re still reckoning with today.”