Two Men Convicted of Killing Human Rights Activist Malcolm X to Be Exonerated

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Malcolm X  - Sputnik International, 1920, 18.11.2021
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In 1966, Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam were sentenced to life in prison along with Thomas Hagan for murdering Malcolm X. Hagan, who actually shot Malcolm X, twice testified that neither Aziz nor Islam were involved in the assassination. He refused to identify other perpetrators.
Two men convicted of killing African American human rights activist Malcolm X are to be exonerated after more than half a century. Prosecutor Cyrus R Vance Jr said the prosecutors that worked on the case in the 1960s as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and police withheld key evidence, which if it had been presented, would have led to both men's acquittal.

Mr Vance made the decision after a nearly two-year review of the case conducted by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and lawyers for the accused men.

Among the evidence withheld were testimonies by witnesses implicating other suspects and pointing away from Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam. Investigators also interviewed a living witness mentioned in court documents as JM, who backed the alibi of Mr Aziz, saying he was not present at the crime scene and was at home nursing his wounded legs.

Malcolm X: Assassination and Trial

Born Malcolm Little, he was a prominent advocate of black empowerment. In the 1940s, he became a member of a religious and political organisation, the Nation of Islam (NOI), which advocated separatism for black Americans. Members of NOI were told to replace their last names with X, which the group said signified African Americans' identity as an “ex-slave” as well as a marker for their lost ancestral name.

During his time at the Nation of Islam, he made several controversial statements that garnered the attention of the FBI, which put him under surveillance. In his speeches, Malcolm X promoted NOI's teachings, including beliefs that white men were "devils" and that black people were the original people of the world.
© Library of Congress Prints and Photographs DivisionMalcolm X, full-length portrait, standing, facing slightly left, being interviewed by reporters.
Malcolm X, full-length portrait, standing, facing slightly left, being interviewed by reporters. - Sputnik International, 1920, 18.11.2021
Malcolm X, full-length portrait, standing, facing slightly left, being interviewed by reporters.
In 1964, he left the organisation over disagreements with its then leader Elijah Muhammad and the group’s teachings, which Malcolm X believed were rigid. After completing the Hajj to Mecca, Malcolm X wrote that he had changed his thinking about race after meeting white Muslims during the pilgrimage.

Two days before his assassination he told photographer Gordon Parks:

"I did many things as a Muslim that I'm sorry for now. I was a zombie then‍—‌like all [Black] Muslims‍—‌I was hypnotised, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man's entitled to make a fool of himself if he's ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years".

After leaving the Nation of Islam Malcolm X received death threats. His wife Betty Shabazz received a telephone call with a man telling her that Malcolm X was "as good as dead".

On 21 February 1965, he was shot by three gunmen at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, where he was set to give a speech. One of the assailants Thomas Hagan, also known by his Islamic name Mujahid Abdul Halim, was detained at the scene.
A subsequent investigation identified two other attackers - Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam, back then members of NOI. Prosecutors found them guilty and sentenced the men to life in prison despite both individuals having alibis backed by their spouses, friends, and other people and no physical evidence tying them to the murder.

Moreover, Thomas Hagan twice testified that the two men were innocent. He said other men were involved in the murder, but refused to identify the perpetrators.

The two men spent a combined 42 years behind bars. Muhammad Aziz was paroled in 1985. Khalil Islam was paroled in 1987 and died in 2009 at the age of 74. The review of their case was launched following the release of a popular documentary, "Who Killed Malcolm X?", as well as the biography "The Dead Are Rising", which identified William Bradley, a member of the Nation of Islam, as one of the attackers.
Malcolm X's daughters too called upon law enforcement to reopen the case, citing newly-emerged evidence - a deathbed letter of a man who worked as a policeman at the time of the assassination. He wrote that the FBI and the NYPD mishandled the murder.

Prosecutor Cyrus R Vance Jr apologised to the families of both men on behalf of law enforcement, which he said had failed the wrongfully accused.

"[The investigation] points to the truth that law enforcement over history has often failed to live up to its responsibilities. These men did not get the justice that they deserved".

David Shanies, a civil rights lawyer representing one of the men, said the convictions had a "horrific, torturous, and unconscionable" effect. Even after their release, Mr Aziz and Mr Islam were viewed as the killers of Malcolm X, which affected their position in society, the lawyer argued.

"It affected them in every way you could possibly imagine, them and their families", David Shanies aid.

Phil Bertelsen, a co-executive producer of "Who Killed Malcolm X", said he hoped the results of the investigation would prompt US lawmakers to reexamine the assassination of Malcolm X and look into the possible role of the government in the case.
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