Two men convicted in the 1965 assassination of Black civil rights leader Malcolm X are set to be cleared after more than half a century, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. will move to have the convictions of Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam vacated, according to press releases from the Innocence Project and civil rights lawyer David Shanies’ law office.
A third man convicted in the killing has said he was one of the gunmen but neither Aziz nor Islam was involved. The two men expected to be cleared — then known as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15 Johnson — maintained their innocence.
Vance, along with representatives of the Innocence Project and Shanies Law Office, is expected to be present in New York State Supreme Court at 2 p.m. ET on Thursday to ask a judge to vacate the convictions, according to a press release.
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“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 in a statement provided through his lawyers.
He said, “While I don’t need these prosecutors or this court to prove that I am innocent, it is good for my family and friends and all the lawyers who supported me over the years, to finally see the truth we all know, which has been officially acknowledged.”
The expected exonerations come after a nearly two-year investigation by the district attorney’s office and lawyers for the two men. The probe “unearthed new evidence of Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam’s innocence, including FBI documents that had been available at the time of trial but were withheld from both the defense and prosecution,” the Innocence Project said in a press release.
Malcolm X, a minister who was a driving force behind the Black Nationalist Movement, became the Nation of Islam’s chief spokesperson and led thousands of people to sign up for the group. He urged Blacks to fight white oppression by “any means necessary”.
About a year before his death, Malcolm X split with the Nation of Islam. After expressing a new vision of the potential for unity racially, many in the group considered him a traitor.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office announced the joint investigation in February 2020 after the release of a Netflix series that year exploring the assassination, called “Who Killed Malcolm X?”
Barry Scheck, codirector of Innocence Project said that the assassination Malcolm X required a thorough investigation and prosecution. Instead, he produced “one of the most blatantly miscarriages in justice that I have seen” in the release.
Scheck said, “Officially correcting a false historical narrative surrounding one of the largest events in U.S. History 20th Century allows us to learn and prevent future injustices of justice.”
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The district attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a USA TODAY request for comment.
Shanies, who represents Aziz and Islam’s estate, said the moment “marks a significant and long overdue milestone for Muhammad Aziz and the memory of Khalil Islam.”
Shanies stated that Shanies had released a statement saying, “They, their family, and their community have suffered decades of pain, suffering, and they will never be forgotten.” While the unjust and tragic events from the past cannot be undone, exonerating these men will give them a just and rightful affirmation about their character.
Malcolm X died in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, February 21, 1965 by gunmen who fired during a speaking engagement. He was 39.
Aziz, Islam and their accomplices in the crime spent more than two decades behind bars. Aziz (83) was freed in 1985. Islam was finally released in 1985, and he died in 2009.
Many people have doubted the convictions over the years, and many books have pointed out their innocence according to Greg Carr (chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies, Howard University).
“I don’t think that their exoneration comes as a surprise to anyone who has kind of a general awareness of the circumstances around and the facts around the assassination of Malcolm X,” Carr said. The exoneration of the Netflix series is a reflection of the lack of knowledge about what’s been a fairly consistent claim that they did not do it.
Carr announced Wednesday that the U.S. is continuing to struggle with structural racism and police brutality issues. Carr stated that those wounds are directly connected to the state’s violence against Black leaders during the 1960s, 70s.
Peniel Joseph, founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin, said Thursday is “a day to celebrate but also to commemorate and continue the advocacy to release the countless numbers of Black people who remain locked inside of America’s prisons for crimes they did not commit.”
Joseph stated that Malcolm X was the voice for Black workers and those who suffered from prison, death, or punishment. “His assassination remains one of this nation’s greatest tragedies, both because of his untimely death but also the botched investigation that resulted in the miscarriage of justice that spanned 56 years.”
Contributing to The Associated Press