More than a half century after the assassination of Malcolm X, two of his convicted killers were formally exonerated on Thursday after years of doubt about who was responsible for the civil rights icon’s death.
Manhattan judge Ellen Biben dismissed the convictions of Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam, after prosecutors and the men’s lawyers said a renewed investigation found new evidence that they were not involved with the killing and determined that authorities withheld some of what they knew.
The investigation was launched by Cy Vance, the Manhattan District Attorney, following the broadcast of a six-part Netflix documentary last year which sparked renewed focus on the case.
Malcolm X speaks to reporters in Washington, D.C., on May 16, 1963. He was gunned down aged 39 on February 21, 1965 inside Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom during a rally
Vance’s conclusion that the conviction should be quashed is likely to be one of the most high-profile final acts for him as DA: he announced in March that he would retire at the end of this year, and not seek re-election after 12 years in office.
Vance, 66, apologized to Aziz in court on Thursday, and shook his hand.
FBI files showed that the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered agents to tell witnesses not to reveal that they were informants when talking with police and prosecutors.
‘Many of those documents were exculpatory. None of them were disclosed to the defense,’ Vance told the court on Thursday.
‘Without these files, it is clear these men did not receive a fair trial, and their convictions must be vacated.
‘Moreover, under the unique circumstances presented by a 55-year-old case, there can be no retrial on any of the charges contained in the indictment. Therefore, the People believe the indictment against Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam should be dismissed.’
Aziz told the court: ‘The events that led to my exoneration should never have occurred.
‘I am an 83-year-old man who was victimized by the criminal justice system.’
He and Islam, who maintained their innocence from the start in the 1965 killing at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom, were paroled in the 1980s.
Islam died in 2009, aged 74.
‘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,’ Aziz said in a statement released by his attorney.
Muhammad Aziz stands outside the courthouse after his conviction and that of the late Khalil Islam in the killing of Malcolm X was vacated on Thursday
Aziz, pictured at left being escorted by detectives after his arrest in New York in 1965, and alleged accomplice Islam, who died in 2009, were exonerated after prosecutors and defense lawyers said they were not involved in the assassination
Aziz, second from left, shakes hands with attorney Barry Scheck, right, after a judge tossed his conviction
Malcolm X gained national prominence as the voice of the Nation of Islam, exhorting black people to claim their civil rights ‘by any means necessary.’
His autobiography, written with Alex Haley, remains a classic work of modern American literature and his life was turned into a 1992 Spike Lee film, starring Denzel Washington. Washington was nominated for an Oscar for the role of Malcolm X.
Near the end of Malcolm X’s life, he split with the Nation of Islam and, after a trip to Mecca, started speaking about the potential for racial unity.
It earned him the ire of some in the Nation of Islam, including the leader, Elijah Muhammad, who saw him as a traitor.
Malcolm was shot and killed while beginning a speech on February 21, 1965. He was 39.
Aziz and Islam, then known as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, and a third man were convicted of murder in March 1966. They were sentenced to life in prison.
The third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim – also known as Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagan – admitted to shooting Malcolm X but said neither Aziz nor Islam was involved.
The two offered alibis, and no physical evidence linked them to the crime.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance (right) told the court on Thursday that a recent investigation found information in FBI files about witnesses who couldn’t identify Islam and implicated other suspects
Muhammad Aziz’s Full Statement to Court:
‘The events that led to my exoneration 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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘However, I hope the same system that was responsible for this travesty of justice also take responsibility for the immeasurable harm it caused me.’
Halim was paroled in 2010. Through a relative, he declined to comment on Thursday.
He identified some other men as accomplices, but no one else has ever been held accountable for the crime.
The recent investigation found information in FBI files about witnesses who couldn’t identify Islam and implicated other suspects, Vance told the court.
‘We are moving today to vacate the convictions and dismiss the indictments,’ Vance said.
‘I apologize for what were serious, unacceptable violations of law and the public trust.’
The files showed that Hoover ordered agents to tell witnesses not to reveal that they were informants when talking with police and prosecutors, Vance said.
‘There is one ultimate conclusion: Mr Aziz and Mr Islam were wrongfully convicted of this crime,’ Vance said – adding that there is no prospect of retrying the 56-year-old case.
He apologized for law enforcement’s ‘serious, unacceptable violations of law and the public trust’.
Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck, one of the lawyers for Aziz and for Islam’s family, said the review also found the FBI and police hid evidence from prosecutors, as what he called part of a plot to disrupt the black civil rights movement.
The FBI and New York Police Department had evidence of Aziz’s and Islam’s innocence within hours but ignored and suppressed it, said another of their attorneys, Deborah Francois, who works with civil rights attorney David Shanies.
Biben said the case ‘cries out for fundamental justice.’
‘There can be no question that this is a case that cries out for fundamental justice,’ she said, as she granted a 43-page joint motion to vacate the men’s convictions and dismiss their indictment.
‘To Mr Aziz and your family and to the family of Mr Islam, I regret that this court cannot fully undue the serious miscarriages of justice and give you back the years that were lost.’
Applause broke out in court when she approved Vance’s request to quash the conviction.
Two of Islam’s sons who were also present in court, Ameen and Shahid Johnson, told reporters outside the courthouse that they felt ‘bittersweet’ about the exoneration because it could not replace everything their family had lost.
Ameen was one-and-a-half years old and their mother was pregnant with Shahid when Islam, who was formerly known as Thomas Johnson, was arrested.
The exoneration was a ‘very, very long time coming,’ Ameen Johnson told Reuters earlier while waiting to enter the courtroom.
‘I honestly didn’t think I’d live to see the day.’
Historian Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, whose efforts to discover who really killed Malcolm X formed the basis of the Netflix series, said on Thursday that Aziz and Islam lived out their lives after prison with the ‘stigma’ and ‘burden’ of being known as two of the killers of the famed civil rights leader.
Near the end of his life, Islam was still fighting to have his name cleared, the scholar said, adding: ‘I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t think he was going to have the time.’
Aziz, meanwhile, was ‘cautious’ ahead of the hearing, ‘because he lost faith in the system decades ago,’ Muhammad said.
‘He wasn’t waiting around for an exoneration because he had learned to live his life under that cloud and under that shadow for five decades,’ Muhammad said.
‘So it’s a great victory. I’m so happy for him.
‘I want him to enjoy his life, and the world now knows that he is innocent of the murder of Malcolm X … but again, we’ve always known that.’
The NYPD and the FBI said Wednesday that they had cooperated fully with the re-investigation. They declined to comment further.
NYPD Chief of Patrol Juanita Holmes said Thursday she felt for Malcolm X’s family and for Aziz and Islam ‘if we are responsible for withholding information.’
‘I hope that we never revisit a scenario like this again,’ she added.
Attorneys, scholars and others have long raised questions about the convictions, and alternate theories and accusations have swirled around the case.
After Netflix aired the documentary series ‘Who Killed Malcom X?’ early last year, Vance’s office said it was taking a fresh look at the case.
As news of the exonerations reverberated, New York City’s mayor said the public deserved more answers.
‘I hope this doesn’t end the discussion,’ Mayor Bill de Blasio said. ‘For millions and millions of Americans, we still need to know who killed Malcolm X and who ordered it.’
But the prospect is clouded by the passage of time.
Every eyewitness who testified at the trial has died, and all the physical evidence – including a shotgun used in the killing – is gone, as are any phone records that might have existed, Vance said.
Aziz said while he does ‘not need a court or a piece of paper’ to tell him he is innocent, he is glad his family and supporters ‘are finally seeing the truth…officially recognized’
Ameen Johnson, left, and Shahid Johnson, sons of Khalil Islam, speak during a press conference outside Manhattan court Thursday. Their father died more without ever seeing his name cleared
Islam’s family and Aziz could each reasonably seek $1 million in restitution for each year they spent in prison, according to New York-based civil rights lawyer Richard Emery, who has represented wrongfully convicted people.
Emery said there were two ways to seek restitution: suing the state for unjust conviction, and filing a federal civil rights case against the law enforcement agencies involved.
One of Malcolm X’s daughters, Ilyasah Shabazz, said in a statement on Thursday that she hoped the ‘long overdue’ exonerations would bring some peace to Aziz, his family and Islam’s family.
But Shabazz said her family still wants to know the full truth behind her father’s murder.
‘Full justice will not be served until all parties involved in the orchestrated killing of our father are identified and brought to justice,’ she said.
One FBI report from September 28, 1965 – which was kept secret – contained a description of the man whom some experts on the assassination have concluded was probably the killer who wielded a shotgun — William Bradley.
The Netflix series told the story of the hunt for Malcolm X’s true killer, and researched Bradley’s story.
Bradley’s role in the killing was an open secret in Newark, New Jersey, where he lived, according to the documentary.
Bradley, a member of the Newark mosque who once served time in prison on charges that included threatening to kill three people, died in 2018 aged 79.
Halim – who admitted to being involved in the assassination plot, and was jailed for the crime – identified the man with the shotgun as Bradley, and insisted Aziz and Islam had not been involved.
Bradley also denied any involvement.
The historian Manning Marable, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Malcolm X in 2011, suspected that Bradley was probably pulled into the assassination plot.
But questions remain as to who ultimately ordered Malcolm’s murder.
‘The question is not simply the other four men who did kill Malcolm,’ David Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian, says in the second part of the Netflix series.
‘The more historically crucial questions are who else in Newark, in New York and most essentially, in Chicago, were active participants in arranging Malcolm’s murder.’
The three men accused of murdering Malcolm X – one who admitted to the crime served 45 years of a life prison sentence while the other two, who have maintained innocence, are set to have their convictions thrown out
Three Nation of Islam followers were convicted of murdering civil rights leader Malcom X in 1965 and nearly five decades later one man who admitted to the crime is free from prison after serving 45 years of his life sentence while the other two, who have maintained their innocence, are set to have their convictions thrown out on Thursday.
Thomas Hagan, admitted to the assassination
Thomas Hagan, 80, was the only man to confess to shooting dead Malcolm X inside Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965 as he began a speech
Thomas Hagan, 80, was the only man to confess to shooting dead Malcolm X inside Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965 as he began a speech.
He was caught – and rescued – by police after bystanders in the ballroom captured Hagan, beat him and shot him in the leg following his fatal gunshots.
Hagan and four other assassins, who were never convicted, planned to gun down Malcom X, according to a 2008 affidavit. One man pickpocketed attendees as a distraction while another shot Malcolm X in the chest.
Hagan, who then went by the name Talmadge X Hayer, then fired several shots into the infamous leader’s dying body after he collapsed on the stage.
His chosen Islamic name is Mujahid Abdul Hamlin.
The court filing explained that Hagan ‘acted out of rage’ over Malcolm X’s split from the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist, religious and political organization founded in the US in 1930.
Hagan claimed he was young and acted impulsively due to his loyalties to Nation of Islam’s leader Elijah Muhammad, who thought Malcolm X was a ‘hypocrite’ for splitting from the cult-like group despite being the organization’s chief spokesman.
Malcolm X had reportedly broke from the Nation of Islam after accusing Muhammad of adultery and not doing enough for civil rights.
He told The New York Post that in 2008 he lived in Manhattan’s Sunset Park, worked at a fast-food restaurant and spent his free time with his wife and kids and told the news site that although he still practiced Muslim, he left the Nation of Islam.
He was 39 years old when he was condemned to life in prison on charges for second-degree murder. However, he only served 23 years behind bars and the following 22 in a work-release program.
While in prison he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degree and his work-related program gave him jobs at the Crown Heights Youth Collective as as a counselor at a homeless shelter on Ward’s Island, according to The Post.
The first year into his work-related program Hagan also fathered a child.
Throughout Hagan’s time in prison – and into his life as a free man – he has consistently denied that the other two men arrested for the crime are guilty.
Muhammad A Aziz, on parole since the 80s
Muhammad A Aziz, 30 at the time of the crime and now 83
Muhammad A Aziz, 83, is still in prison for assassinating Malcolm X.
Then a 30-year-old known as Norman Butler, Aziz was a lieutenant in the Nation of Islam’s military and worked at the Harlem mosque Malcolm X headed before parting ways from the sect’s leader.
The now-elderly Aziz is still maintaining his innocence. On February 21, 1965 he was a Navy veteran and former convict out on parole after beating and shooting Benjamin Brown, who set up a mosque in the Bronx.
While behind bars Aziz graduated with his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in religious studies and went on to work as the chief of security for a Harlem mosque while out on parole.
Khalil Islam, died in 2009 while on parole
Khalil Islam – then Thomas Johnson – died in 2009 at the age of 74.
Islam attested that he had no role in the assassination at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights on February 21, 1965, until his dying day, and a now elderly Aziz still standing by that same sentiment.
Khalil Islam, 26 at the time of the crime and died in 2009 aged 74
Islam was also on parole with Aziz on that day in 1965 for shooting Brown.
According to The New York Times those charges were later dropped but their criminal history led officers to arrest the duo just days after Malcom X was assassinated.
Then-26-year-old Islam was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Islam had been Malcolm X’s personal driver.
Both Aziz and Islam were paroled in the 80s.
In the late 1970s Hagan signed an affidavit identifying what he claimed to be his true co-conspirators – four men from New Jersey – but a judge dismissed the court filing and upheld Aziz and Islam’s convictions.
While in prison Islam converted to a mainstream form of the Muslim religion and rejected the Nation of Islam entirely, as reported by The Times.
Malcolm X’s family released late cop’s ‘deathbed’ letter that claimed FBI and police conspired in the civil rights leader’s 1965 assassination
Exactly 56 years since Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City, lawyers and family members of the late civil rights leader released a letter they claim shows the NYPD and FBI conspired in his murder.
The note, said to be a deathbed confession made by Ray Wood, a former undercover NYPD officer, was unveiled in a press conference by civil rights attorney Ben Crump in February.
Wood claimed in his letter that the FBI and the NYPD conspired to kill Malcolm X, who was gunned down on February 21, 1965 inside Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom during a rally.
He alleged that he was pressured by his NYPD supervisors to lure two members of Malcolm X’s security detail into committing crimes that resulted in their arrest just days before the shooting.
Those arrests kept the two men from managing door security at the ballroom on the night Malcolm was killed, according to the letter.
‘My job was to infiltrate civil rights organizations throughout New York City, to find evidence of criminal activity, so the FBI could discredit and arrest its leaders,’ Wood stated in the letter.
‘Under the direction of my handlers I was told to encourage leaders and members of civil rights groups to commit felonious acts.’
Exactly 56 years since Malcolm X (right) was assassinated in New York City, lawyers and family members of the late civil rights leader have released a letter they claim shows the NYPD and FBI conspired in his murder. (Pictured left is Reggie Wood, Ray Wood’s cousin)
During Saturday’s conference Wood’s cousin, Reggie Wood, said he confessed to his involvement in 2011 when he believed a worsening cancer would take his life. He ultimately went into remission and lived until November 2020
In his later, dated January 25, 2011, the former officer claimed his actions were done under duress and fear of retaliation.
‘After witnessing repeated brutality at the hands of my colleagues (police), I tried to resign. Instead, I was threatened with arrest by pinning marijuana and alcohol trafficking charges on me if I did not follow through with the assignments.’
On February 16, 1965 Wood claims he coerced members of Malcolm X’s security detail into plan a bombing at the Statue of Liberty.
The plan was then foiled by police and the two men were ‘arrested just days before the assassination of Malcolm. At the time I was not aware that Malcolm X was the target,’ Wood wrote.
Wood signed the letter and instructed his cousin to hold the information until after his passing.
‘It is my hope that this information is received with the understanding that I have carried these secrets with a heavy heart and remorsefully regret my participation in this matter.’
During Saturday’s conference Wood’s cousin, Reggie Wood, said he confessed to his involvement in 2011 when he believed a worsening cancer would take his life. He ultimately went into remission and lived until November 2020.
‘For 10 years, I have carried this confession secretly in fear of what could happen to my family and myself if the government found out what I knew,’ Reggie Wood said.
Now Malcolm X’s three daughters – Qubiliah, Ilyasah, and Gamilah Shabazz – joined civil rights attorney Ben Crump demanding for the murder investigation to be re-opened in light of the ‘new evidence’ shared Saturday.
‘Any evidence that provides greater insight into the truth behind that terrible tragedy should be thoroughly investigated,’ said Ilyasah Shabazz.
Malcolm X was shot seconds after stepping to a lectern to speak inside the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965
Two policemen carry stretcher bearing Malcom X after he was downed by an assassin’s bullets at a rally
An autopsy later revealed that he had suffered a total of 21 gunshot wounds to his chest, arms and legs
In his later, dated January 25, 2011, the former officer claimed his actions were done under duress and fear of retaliations
Attorney Ray Hamlin added: ‘So, what we’re trying to do is talk about restorative justice is as lawyers – try to pursue relentless justice.
‘On behalf of the legacy of Malcolm X, Dr. Betty Shabazz, on behalf of his family his lineage who is here.’
Three Nation of Islam members, Mujahid Abdul Halim (also known as Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagan), Muhammad Abdul Aziz (also known as Norman 3X Butler) and Khalil Islam (also known as Thomas 15X Johnson), were convicted of Malcolm X’s murder in 1966 and sentenced to life in prison.
While Halim admitted to taking part in the assassination, he insisted that Aziz and Islam were not involved. And the two maintained their innocence throughout the years.
Islam died in 2009 and Halim and Aziz have since been paroled.
Last year the Manhattan DA began a review of their Islam and Aziz’s convictions after meeting with representatives of the Innocence Project.
Now, with the new evidence, the DA’s office says ‘the review of this matter is active and ongoing.’
The NYPD said in a separate statement it has ‘provided all available records relevant to that case to the District Attorney’ and ‘remains committed to assist with that review in any way.’
The FBI declined to comment on the matter.
‘For 10 years, I have carried this confession secretly in fear of what could happen to my family and myself if the government found out what I knew,’ Reggie Wood said
Malcolm X was a powerful orator who rose to prominence as the national spokesman of the Nation of Islam, an African-American Muslim group that espoused Black separatism.
He spent more than a decade with the group before becoming disillusioned and publicly breaking with it in 1964. He moderated some of his earlier views on the benefits of racial separation.
Malcolm X was shot seconds after stepping to a lectern to speak inside the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965.
Seconds before, a man had stood up and yelled, ‘N***** get your hand out of my pocket!’
As Malcolm X and his entourage attempted to quell the disturbance, a man rushed forward towards the stage and shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun, and two other men then opened fire with semi-automatic handguns.
The civil rights activist was rushed to Columbia Presbyterian where he was pronounced dead shortly after arrival, at 3:30pm.
An autopsy later revealed that he had suffered a total of 21 gunshot wounds to his chest, arms and legs.
Thomas Hagan, 22, struggles with police who take him from the scene outside the ballroom where Malcolm X was shot and killed
‘Any evidence that provides greater insight into the truth behind that terrible tragedy should be thoroughly investigated,’ said Ilyasah Shabazz
Days earlier, Malcolm X had ominously told a reporter that he believed members of the Nation of Islam were seeking to kill him.
He was being surveilled by the FBI at the time. His home in Queens was firebombed the week before his death.
Almost immediately after his death, conspiracies of police involvement in the assassination began to circulate.
Many of the theories centered on the ease in which the assassins were able to enter the ballroom, and the police’s perceived failure to preserve the crime scene.
One of the officers involved, Tony Bouza, would later write in his 2011 book ‘Manny Marable’s Malcolm X’ that the ‘investigation was botched.’