By Samuel Van Blaricom
MANHATTAN, NY – The headline read: “Malcolm X Shot to Death at Rally Here.” These words greeted millions of New Yorkers as they picked up their copy of the New York Times and shivered in a fresh layer of snow on Monday morning, Feb. 22, 1965.
It was written above a large picture of Malcolm’s body on a gurney leaving the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, surrounded by columns forecasting the growth in the labor force by 1980 and support from the world press for the United States’ conflict in Vietnam.
But Thursday, decades later, in a nation undergoing the Great Resignation and disillusionment from 20 years of foreign conflict, two of the men convicted of his assassination, Khalil Islam and Muhammad A. Aziz, have been exonerated in what justice reform advocates call a long overdue correction of justice.
Islam, who passed away in 2009, and Aziz, now 83, maintained their innocence throughout their imprisonment and time on parole, according to the Washington Post.
In a statement at the court hearing on Thursday, Aziz said, “While I do not need this court, these prosecutors, or a piece of paper to tell me I am innocent, I am very glad that my family, my friends, and attorneys… are finally seeing the truth that we have all known all these years officially recognized.”
Aziz added that although the exoneration is a welcome step, he hopes the system that imprisoned him will hold itself accountable for its wrongdoings.
“I am an 83-year-old man who was victimized by the criminal justice system. I hope the same system that was responsible for this travesty of justice also takes responsibility for the immeasurable harm it caused me,” he said.
The New York Times reported that Aziz spent 20 years imprisoned between 1965 and 1985, when he was released on parole. Islam spent 22 years in prison before he was released on parole in 1987.
Mujahid Abdul Halim, who confessed on the witness stand and was the third defendant in the case, was paroled in 2010 after 45 years in prison. According to the Washington Post, he has always asserted that Aziz and Islam were innocent and did not work with him.
The Washington Post also reported that, in 1977, Halim wrote a sworn affidavit that four others, none of whom were Aziz or Islam, assisted him in killing Malcolm X. The judge that reviewed it decided that it was not enough to overturn the convictions of Aziz and Islam.
The re-investigation into the case began in 2020 after evidence of gross misconduct by numerous state actors emerged in the Netflix documentary, “Who Killed Malcolm X?” directed by Phil Bertelsen.
The Manhattan District Attorney, Cy Vance, Jr., argued for a dismissal of the indictments and to vacate the convictions of Aziz and Islam at the hearing. He stated that “there are two grounds for our motion: newly discovered evidence, and the failure to disclose exculpatory evidence. There is one ultimate conclusion: Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were wrongfully convicted of this crime.”
The “newly discovered evidence” mentioned by DA Vance is a series of documents from the FBI and the NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations that were never disclosed to the defense before the trial, and some that were never given to the prosecution.
It also included a new witness, who was interviewed just after the re-investigation began, as reported by the New York Times.
DA Vance gave examples of the documents, saying that they were primarily “FBI reports of witnesses who failed to identify Mr. Islam and who implicated other suspects.”
This was not the result of careless paperwork, or forgetting a box of files at the office.
DA Vance, in collaboration with Shanies Law Office and The Innocence Project, also found “reports that, on the orders of J. Edgar Hoover himself, the FBI ordered multiple witnesses not to tell police or prosecutors that they were, in fact, FBI informants.”
The new witness, identified as J.M., said in the motion that Aziz called his mosque from his home and told him that “he just heard Malcolm X had been shot.” J.M. called him back with a man he called his Mosque Captain and confirmed that Aziz was on his home phone.
In DA Vance’s report, it is noted that Aziz claimed during his testimony that he called the mosque after learning about the shooting. After talking to the phone operator and hanging up, he then received a call from the mosque, speaking to a man known as “Captain Joseph.”
The testimony from the new witness significantly strengthened Aziz’s alibi, according to the report.
After hearing the motion from the prosecution, State Supreme Court Judge Ellen Biben exonerated Aziz and Islam, saying, “I regret that this court cannot fully undo the serious miscarriages of justice in this case and give you back the many years that were lost.”
At a spot outside the courthouse, the sons of Khalil Islam spoke about the experience of seeing their father’s name cleared without him being there.
“It almost sounds casual to me, that he’s been exonerated. The great pleasure is not there because he is not here with me,” said Shahid Johnson, the youngest brother. He had not been born yet when his father was arrested.
“The fact that my mother and father weren’t here, are not here alive to experience the exoneration, is painful,” said Rameen Johnson, the eldest brother. He was just over one year old when Malcolm X was killed.
The revelations that cleared the names of Aziz and Islam, though, suggests deeper and more complicated circumstances revolving around Malcolm X’s assassination.
Ilyasah Shabazz, the third daughter of Malcolm X, said in a statement covered by various news sources, “Full justice will not be served until all parties involved in the orchestrated killing of our father are identified and brought to justice… It is our hope that finally the full truth can be learned.”
At least within the Manhattan jurisdiction, there will likely be no pursuit of justice.
DA Vance said that “in a case that rested entirely on eyewitness testimony, every single eyewitness that testified at trial has died. All the physical evidence, including the shotgun used in the murder, is gone. No telephone records were obtained at the time, and there is no way to get them now.”
All of this led DA Vance to conclude that a retrial is impossible for Aziz and Islam, allowing for the vacation of their indictments but also limiting the ability of future prosecutors to pursue other suspects.