The Men Who Didn’t Kill Malcolm X

Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Two of the men convicted for the assassination of Malcolm X were officially exonerated this week following the revelation that law enforcement withheld evidence pointing to their innocence 55 years ago.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office announced Wednesday it would move to vacate the murder convictions of the late Khalil Islam and Muhammad Aziz following a 22-month investigation helmed by the office and the men’s legal representation, which included the Innocence Project, according to the New York Times. The news confirmed persistent doubts that the two men, who long maintained their innocence, were responsible for Malcolm X’s slaying.

During a hearing Thursday, Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. apologized directly to the families of Islam, Aziz, and Malcolm X for “serious, unacceptable violations of the law and the public trust.”

“I apologize on behalf of our nation’s law enforcement for this decades-long injustice, which has eroded public faith in institutions that are designed to guarantee the equal protection of the law,” Vance said. “We can’t restore what was taken from these men and their families, but by correcting the record, perhaps we can begin to restore that faith.”

State Supreme Court judge Ellen Biben granted the motion by the district attorney’s office to officially throw out Aziz and Islam’s convictions.

“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,” Biben said, according to CNN.

Aziz, known as Norman 3X Butler, and Islam, known as Thomas 15X Johnson, were convicted in 1966 alongside Mujahid Abdul Halim of opening fire on Malcolm X as he was about to give a speech at Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965. The civil-rights leader was gunned down in a fusillade of bullets fired by gunmen in the audience. Aziz, Islam, and Halim were all members of the Nation of Islam, which Malcolm X had broken from prior to his murder after a public and volatile rift with its leader, Elijah Muhammad.

Police arrested Halim at the scene; he confessed but later testified that the other men were not involved. Nevertheless, all three were convicted mostly on the strength of eyewitness accounts and sentenced to life in prison. Aziz, now 83, was released in 1985. Islam was released two years later in 1987 and passed away in 2009. Halim was paroled in 2010.

In an interview with New York in 2007, Islam reiterated his alibi. “I spent most of the day in bed with this rheumatoid-arthritis condition. They said I shot Malcolm then jumped out the ladies’-room window and ran down the stairs. The truth is I could hardly walk … I only found out about the shooting when my next-door neighbor came over shouting, ‘They got Big Red,’” Islam said, referring to Malcolm X’s street name prior to his conversion to Islam.

Vance said the team’s investigation was hindered by the amount of time that had passed since the murder. The physical evidence from the trial, including the shotgun used in the crime, no longer exists, and all of the previous eyewitnesses who testified have since died. He said the team reviewed records from the NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations and the FBI, many of which were not turned over to the men’s lawyers at the time.

“These records include FBI reports of witnesses who failed to identify Mr. Islam and who implicated other suspects. And significantly, we now have reports revealing that, on orders from Director J. Edgar Hoover himself, the FBI ordered multiple witnesses not to tell police or prosecutors that they were, in fact, FBI informants,” Vance said.

According to the Times, investigators from the district attorney’s office and the men’s current legal team reexamined old files from the original trial including court records, public statements, and grand-jury documents. Some of the evidence included notes from prosecutors that indicated undercover officers were present at the shooting, a fact that was not disclosed to their defense attorneys. The team also interviewed a new witness who supported Aziz’s alibi, as several defense witnesses had during the original trial.

As for who else fired at Malcolm X, the FBI was reportedly aware of a man named William Bradley who matched a witness’s description of a suspect. Bradley was known as an enforcer for the Nation of Islam, the Times reported, and was even identified by Halim as one of the other shooters. The description did not resemble Aziz or Islam, and New York authorities were apparently never told Bradley was a suspect.

This piece has been updated throughout.

The Men Who Didn’t Kill Malcolm X