NEW YORK – Two of the three men convicted in the assassination of Malcolm X are set to be cleared Thursday after insisting on their innocence since the 1965 killing of one of the United States’ most formidable fighters for civil rights, their lawyers and Manhattan’s top prosecutor said Wednesday.
A nearly two-year-long re-investigation found that authorities withheld evidence favorable to the defense in the trial of Muhammad Aziz, now 83, and the late Khalil Islam, said their attorneys, the Innocence Project and civil rights lawyer David Shanies.
Aziz called his conviction “the result of a process that was corrupt to its core – one that is all too familiar” even today.
“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.”
He urged the criminal justice system to “take responsibility for the immeasurable harm it caused me.”
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. tweeted that his office would join the men’s attorneys in asking a judge Thursday to toss out the convictions.
“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.”
One of the civil rights era’s most controversial and compelling figures, Malcolm X rose to fame as the Nation of Islam’s chief spokesperson, proclaiming the Black Muslim organization’s message at the time: racial separatism as a road to self-actualization. He famously urged Black people to claim civil rights “by any means necessary” and referred to white people as “blue-eyed devils,” and he later denounced racism.
About a year before his death, he split from the Nation of Islam and later made a pilgrimage to Mecca, returning with a new view of the potential for racial unity. Some in the Nation of Islam saw him as a traitor.
At age 39, he was gunned down as he began a speech in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965.
Aziz, Islam and a third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim – also known as Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagan – were convicted of murder in March 1966 and sentenced to life in prison.
Hagan said he was one of three gunmen who shot Malcolm X, but he testified that neither Aziz nor Islam was involved. The two, then known as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, maintained throughout that they were innocent and offered alibis at their 1966 trial. No physical evidence linked them 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 in 2010. A message was left Wednesday at a phone number he had when paroled.
He identified two other men as gunmen, but no one else was ever arrested.
According to The New York Times, the re-investigation found the FBI had documents that pointed to other suspects, and a still-living witness supported Aziz’s alibi – that he was at home with a leg injury at the time of the shooting.
The witness, whom authorities had never interviewed before and was identified only by the initials “J.M.,” said he spoke to Aziz on the latter’s home phone the day of the killing, the newspaper said.
Also, the review found that prosecutors knew about but didn’t disclose that undercover officers were in the ballroom when the gunfire erupted, and police knew that someone had called the Daily News of New York earlier that day saying that Malcolm X would be killed.
The New York Police Department and the FBI said Wednesday that they had cooperated fully with the re-investigation, and they declined to comment further.
Aziz was released in 1985. Islam was released two years later and died in 2009. Both continued to press to clear their names.
“I did not kill Malcolm X,” Aziz said at a news conference in 1998, after the Nation of Islam tapped him to run the mosque where the slain leader had preached.
A decade later, Islam told a gathering at a Harlem bookstore: “I need to be exonerated. I had to walk 22 years in prison.”
And after their release, he and Aziz lived under the cloud of being Malcolm X’s supposed assassins.
“Exonerating these men is a righteous and well-deserved affirmation of their true character,” Shanies said in a statement. Deborah Francois, a counsel in his office, called the convictions “the product of gross official misconduct and a criminal justice system weighed against people of color.”
The Manhattan district attorney’s office publicly acknowledged it was considering reopening the case after Netflix aired the documentary series “Who Killed Malcom X?” last year. The series explored a theory by scholars that the two men were innocent and that some of the real killers had escaped.
(By Jennifer Peltz. Associated Press writers Michael R. Sisak and Karen Matthews contributed to this report.)