Two men convicted of killing Malcolm X to be exonerated

    Norman 3X Butler, left, and Thomas 15X Johnson will have their convictions thrown out. Associated Press

    (CNN) — Two of the men convicted of the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X are to be exonerated after more than half a century, according to lawyers for the men.

    A 22-month investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s Office and lawyers for the two men — Muhammad A. Aziz and the late Khalil Islam — found that evidence of their innocence, including FBI documents, was withheld at trial.

    The men were known at the time of the killing of the civil rights activist as Norman 3X Butler (Aziz) and Thomas 15X Johnson (Islam).

    In an interview with The New York Times, which first reported the news, Vance apologized for the failure of law enforcement and said, “This points to the truth that law enforcement over history has often failed to live up to its responsibilities.”

    Vance tweeted on Wednesday that his office, along with attorneys representing the two men, will move to vacate the convictions.

    Aziz, 83, was released from prison in 1985; Islam was released in 1987 and died in 2009.

    CNN has reached out the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which announced a press conference for Thursday.

    In a statement, the Innocence Project and lawyers for Aziz and Islam said that, with the agreement of Vance, they will file a joint motion Thursday to vacate the 1966 convictions.

    Malcolm X, one of the most powerful voices in the fight against racism in the nation, took the stage at the Audubon Ballroom in New York on February 21, 1965. His wife, Betty Shabazz, and four children were in the crowd.

    Not long after, shots were fired and the icon was dead.

    The statement said the reinvestigation “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 assassination of Malcolm X was a historic event that demanded a scrupulous investigation and prosecution but, instead, produced one of the most blatant miscarriages of justice that I have ever seen,” said attorney Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project.

    “Officially correcting the false historical narrative around one of the most significant events in 20th century U.S. history allows us to learn from and prevent future miscarriages of justice.”

    Attorney David B. Shanies said Aziz and Islam “experienced the agony of decades in prison for a crime they did not commit. They were robbed of their freedom in the prime of their lives and branded the killers of a towering civil rights leader.”

    Malcolm X was initially known as a fiery and iconic leader and spokesman for the Nation of Islam who denounced whites as “blue-eyed devils.” But at the end of his life, Malcolm X changed his views toward whites and discarded the Nation of Islam’s ideology in favor of orthodox Islam. In doing so, he feared for his own life from within the Nation.

    Malcolm X remains a symbol of inspiration for black men and others moved by his transformation from a street hustler to a historic figure the late African-American actor Ossie Davis eulogized as “our own black shining prince.”

    The assassination came after a public feud between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam’s founder, Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X had accused Muhammad of infidelity and left the Nation in March 1964.

    Three men were convicted in 1966. Mujahid Abdul Halim (known as Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagan), Aziz and Islam were sentenced to life in prison. For years, Aziz and Islam said they were innocent. Halim said he took part in the assassination, but he maintained the innocence of the other two men.

    Aziz is still trying to clear his name, according to the Innocence Project. He’s carried the stigma of the conviction for more than 50 years.

    Halim tried to absolve Aziz and Islam of the murder when he took the witness stand on February 28, 1966, as reported by The New York Times.

    “I just want to testify that Butler (Aziz) and Johnson (Islam) had nothing to do with it. … I was there, I know what happened and I know the people who were there,” Halim said.

    There was no physical evidence linking Aziz or Islam to the murder of one of the most important African American figures of the 20th century, according to the Innocence Project.

    Aziz also had an alibi, saying he was at home tending to his injured leg.

    “The day of the murder, which was a Sunday morning, I was laying over the couch with my foot up and I heard it over the radio,” Aziz remembers in “Who Killed Malcolm X?”, according to the Innocence Project.

    Vance’s review of the case in February 2020 came after a Netflix documentary series — “Who Killed Malcolm X?” — raised a slew of new questions.

    The district attorney’s office announced the review and said it had been working with the nonprofit Innocence Project, which seeks to exonerate the wrongly convicted.

    Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz, in a statement at the time, said she hoped the investigation “will bring about clarity and transparency regarding this devastating, criminal act against my family and all the devoted followers of a beloved Malcolm.”

    “My father lived his life advocating for and in the pursuance of truth,” she said. “He deserves the same dedication to truth from all of us.”

    The killing of Malcolm X has been the subject of much debate and generated conspiracy theories involving the Nation of Islam and others. The Nation of Islam has repeatedly denied any involvement in Malcolm X’s assassination.

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