By Florence Mafomemeh
By Florence Mafomemeh
Thursday’s exoneration resulted from a nearly two-year-long re-investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and lawyers for the two men from the Innocence Project. They uncovered FBI documents validating historians’ long-held doubts about who killed the civil rights leader thus overturning the convictions nearly 57 years later.
For decades, Aziz and Islam have firmly maintained their innocence in the assassination of civil rights icon. According to a joint motion filed by the Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s office with the defense, the move to vacate the convictions was based on “newly discovered evidence and the failure to disclose exculpatory evidence.”
A 22-month re-investigation found that prosecutors and two of the nation’s premier law enforcement agencies — the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the New York Police Department (NYPD) — had withheld key evidence that, had it been turned over to the jury, would likely have led to the men’s acquittal. Vance said that certain witnesses, acting under orders from then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, were ordered not to reveal they were FBI informants.
“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.” “Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were wrongly convicted of this crime,” Vance said.
“The events that led to my exoneration should never have occurred,” Mr. Aziz said. “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.”
Mr. Aziz, 83, who was paroled in 1985, and Mr. Islam in 1987 and died in 2009 at age 74, would not have spent decades fighting to clear their names. Mujahid Abdul Halim was also found guilty and his conviction stands. At the trial, he confessed to the murder, but said and has maintained that the other two men were innocent.
In an interview, Mr. Vance apologized on behalf of law enforcement, which he said had failed the families of the two men. Those failures, he said, could not be remedied, “but what we can do is acknowledge the error, the severity of the error.”
An explosive documentary about the assassination and a new biography sparking renewed interest in the case, did not identify who prosecutors now believe really killed Malcolm X. Those who were previously implicated but never arrested are dead.
“It’s long overdue,” said Bryan Stevenson a civil rights lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice initiative. “This is one of the most prominent figures of the 20th century who commanded enormous attention and respect. And yet, our system failed.”
Mr. Vance’s re-investigation, conducted with the Innocence Project and the office of David Shanies, a civil rights lawyer, contended with serious obstacles. Many of those involved in the murder case, including witnesses, investigators and trial lawyers as well as other potential suspects, died long ago. Key documents were lost to time and physical evidence, such as murder weapons, were no longer available to be tested.
“This points to the truth that law enforcement over history has often failed to live up to its responsibilities,” Mr. Vance said. “These men did not get the justice that they deserved.”
Aziz sat at the defense table wearing a white mask next to his attorney David Shanies, who called Aziz and Islam “innocent young black men” and accused the NYPD and the FBI of covering up evidence. “Most of the men who murdered Malcolm X never faced justice,” Shanies said.
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.