The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has thrown out the conviction of two men who spent decades in prison after being accused in the murder of civil rights leader Malcolm X.
Khalil Islam, previously known as Thomas 15X Johnson, and Muhammad Aziz, known at the time of the murder as Norman 3X Butler, were held in some of New York’s worst maximum-security prisons.
District Attorney Cy Vance and attorneys for the two men will jointly move on Nov. 18 to vacate their convictions, the District Attorney’s office announced. This comes after the two men spent a combined 42 years in prison, with many years in solitary confinement between them.
Former Nation of Islam (NOI) leader Malcolm X was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965, at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom where he was to speak. Three men, NOI members, were arrested and convicted of the murder though there had long been doubt of the guilt of Iziz and Islam.
A new review of the case found that prosecutors, the FBI and the New York Police Department (NYPD) withheld evidence that would have likely led to an acquittal for both men, NBC New York reported.
In an interview with the New York Times, Vance apologized and acknowledged the “severity of the error.”
Here are seven things to know about the overturn of the convictions.
At the time of the killing, Aziz and Islam were both at the Audubon Ballroom when three men opened fire and Malcolm X was killed. Confessed killer Mujahid Halim always maintained Aziz and Islam were not involved.
Halim was arrested at the ballroom after being shot in the thigh. Aziz was arrested five days later, and Islam 10 days later, The New York Times reported. Within a week, the three men, all members of the NOI, had been charged with murder.
At the trial in 1966, prosecutors claimed that Islam, who was once Malcolm X’s driver, was the assassin who fired the fatal shot. Prosecutors said Halim and Aziz also fired their pistols. Then there were the 10 eyewitnesses who said they had seen exactly that. Witness statements, however, were contradictory, and no physical evidence tied Aziz or Islam to the murder, or even the crime scene, The New York Times reported.
All three men were sentenced to life in prison.
Islam was paroled in 1987 and died in 2009. Aziz was paroled in 1985 and is still alive. Halim was freed on parole in 2010,
It was a Netflix documentary miniseries “Who Killed Malcolm X?” that led to a review of the cases. D.A. Vance’s office launched a review in early 2020 after the documentary raised serious questions about the innocence of Aziz and Islam. Upon the release of the documentary, Vance announced that he would examine the case.
A 22-month investigation followed, conducted jointly by the Manhattan district attorney’s office and lawyers for the two men.
The new review faced many obstacles such as deceased witnesses and potential suspects as well as lost physical evidence and documents. The Innocence Project was involved. A nonprofit legal organization, the Innocence Project works to exonerate wrongly convicted people through DNA testing and works to reform the criminal justice system.
“The events that brought us here should never have occurred; those events were and are the result of a process that was corrupt to its core — one that is all too familiar — even in 2021,” Aziz said on Nov. 17 in a statement released by his lawyers.
“While I do not need a court, prosecutors, or a piece of paper to tell me I am innocent, I am glad that my family, my friends, and the attorneys who have worked and supported me all these years are finally seeing the truth we have all known, officially recognized,” he continued.
Aziz and Islam always maintained their innocence. “This points to the truth that law enforcement over history has often failed to live up to its responsibilities,” Vance said to The New York Times. “These men did not get the justice that they deserved.”
“Khalil Islam said years ago he was ‘caught up’ for trying to protect John Ali,” The Moguldom Nation CEO tweeted.
Ali was one of the most controversial and elusive figures to emerge from the Elijah Muhammad era of the Nation of Islam (NOI). He was the former national secretary of the NOI, making him one of the organization’s most powerful members. But he is also suspected of being a U.S. government operative who infiltrated the NOI in the ’60s.
“I am an 83-year-old man who was victimized by the criminal justice system, and I do not know how many more years I have to be creative,” Aziz said in his statement. “However, I hope the same system that was responsible for this travesty of justice also take responsibility for the immeasurable harm it caused me.”
Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 66: Jamarlin Martin The Case Against John Ali: Jamarlin Martin goes solo to discuss Malcolm X and actual facts concerning the allegations that John Ali, the former national secretary of the Nation of Islam, was an operative of the FBI or U.S. intelligence agencies.
It has been reported that Ali, who was known to be secretive, was the architect of the assassination of Malcolm X. A year before Malcolm X was killed in 1965, Ali publicly declared that the Nation of Islam was planning to murder him, according to the Neromaximus blog. Ali made this statement in 1964 during an interview on Chicago’s WVON radio show “Hotline”.
According to well-known journalist Louis E. Lomax, Ali had ties to the FBI. Lomax worked at Afro-American and the Chicago Defender newspapers before becoming the first African-American TV journalist when he joined New York’s WNTA-TV in 1958. Lomax investigated Malcolm X’s assassination.
Lomax said he believed that Malcolm X was betrayed by his former friend Ali, who reportedly had ties to the intelligence community. In fact, in 1968, Lomax called Ali “Judas,” according to the 1992 book “The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X” by Karl Evanzz. Evanzz was a staff writer for The Washington Post.
“I wonder whether the history would have been materially different, if Malcolm X never recommended John Ali for Secretary in Chicago. Malcolm X was never held accountable in the historical record for this. John Ali himself says he told Malcolm he had prior contact with FBI,” Martin tweeted.
Martin also noted that Ali admitted to interviewing with the FBI in a 2017 interview with the YouTube show “Muhammad and Friends Live Stream.”
The new investigation if Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam found that there was a “trove of F.B.I. documents” including “information that implicated other suspects and pointed away from Islam and Aziz,” The New York Times reported. Prosecutors’ notes at the time also revealed they failed to disclose the presence of undercover officers in the ballroom. Police department files also revealed that a reporter for the New York Daily News received a call the morning of the shooting indicating that Malcolm X would be murdered.
The lives of Islam and Aziz were destroyed. When he was convicted, Aziz had six children. Islam had three. The marriages of both men fall apart.
While Aziz, formerly Norman 3X Butler, has been exonerated, some still think he was guilty.
Evanzz was critical of the Netflix documentary, claiming filmmakers overlooked photo evidence of the involvement of Aziz in the murder of Malcolm X. In a blog post, Evanzz wrote that we wanted to ensure that Ark Media, the Brooklyn, New York-based production company involved in the documentary, “didn’t fall for the bull patties about Butler being innocent of the assassination.”
“Norman Butler was exonerated but Scholar Karl Evanzz is strongly opposed to the idea Norman Butler is innocent:” Martin tweeted.