Two Men Wrongfully Convicted of Killing Malcolm X Are Exonerated After 55 Years

Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam, who each served more than 20 years of a life sentence, had always maintained their innocence

Muhammad Aziz (center) stands outside of a New York City courthouse with members of his family
Muhammad Aziz (center) stands outside of a New York City courthouse with members of his family and lawyers on November 18, 2021. Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Two men wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of Malcolm X have been exonerated. The reversal arrives more than five decades after the civil rights leader’s 1965 assassination, report Ashley Southall and Jonah E. Bromwich for the New York Times.

A judge cleared Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam, two of the three men convicted of the killing in 1966, after a 22-month investigation led by Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. and lawyers from the Innocence Project, which seeks to exonerate those who have been wrongly convicted.

The Thursday ruling officially acknowledged what many investigators and historians have long known or suspected: The men—members of the Nation of Islam, a Black nationalist group that Malcolm left in March 1964—were innocent all along.

Two Men Wrongfully Convicted of Killing Malcolm X Are Exonerated After 55 Years
Malcolm X pictured in 1964 Library of Congress

Aziz, who was released from prison in 1985, and Islam, who was paroled in 1987 and died in 2009, each served more than 20 years of a life sentence. Both endured long periods of solitary confinement in notorious New York prisons, including Attica, the site of a turbulent 1971 uprising that left 43 dead, reports Southall in a separate Times article. All the while, the men attempted to clear their names.

“I do not need this court, these prosecutors or a piece of paper to tell me I am innocent,” says Aziz in a statement released by his lawyers and quoted by NBC News. “... I am an 83-year-old who was victimized by the criminal justice system.”

The exoneration corrects the historical and legal record of one of the most consequential deaths of the civil rights era. As the influential, divisive spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm inspired the burgeoning Black Power movement. His powerful speeches and ideas continue to resonate in American politics to this day, wrote Allison Keyes for Smithsonian magazine in 2018.

On February 21, 1965, Malcolm was assassinated in front of hundreds, including his pregnant wife and three children, at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. The crowd had gathered to hear him speak about the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which he’d founded the previous year after leaving the Nation of Islam and converting to Sunni Islam.

Two Men Wrongfully Convicted of Killing Malcolm X Are Exonerated After 55 Years
A button honoring Malcolm X National Museum of African American History and Culture

As Malcolm took the stage, gunmen opened fire and killed him. Aziz, Islam and Talmadge Hayer, who now goes by the name Mujahid Abdul Harim, were arrested and convicted of first-degree murder in 1966. (At the time of the assassination, Aziz and Islam were known as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, respectively.)

Halim, who was paroled in 2010 after serving more than 40 years, confessed to killing Malcolm during his 1966 trial. But he testified that both Aziz and Islam were innocent, even naming four other members of the Nation of Islam as his actual co-conspirators in the late 1970s.

As the Manhattan district attorney’s report reveals, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the New York Police Department (NYPD) botched their inquiry into the case, withholding crucial evidence about the men’s alibis and relying on conflicting eyewitness testimony to prosecute Aziz and Islam. Per a statement from the Innocence Project, the men were both at home with their families at the time of the killing; Aziz was actually recovering from a beating by police officers and had visited the hospital earlier that day.

“It seemed convenient to pin the murder charge on [Aziz and Islam],” Liz Mazucci, former chief researcher for the Malcolm X Project, told Time’s Josiah Bates last year, “even though they didn’t quite fit the story shared with [police] through eyewitness reports and FBI informants.”

Inconsistencies in the case stood out to many onlookers, including Malcolm X expert Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, who turned his investigation into the murder into a revelatory Netflix documentary series titled “Who Killed Malcolm X?” The February 2020 production brought Aziz’s plight to the attention of a national audience, report Shayna Jacobs and Sydney Trent for the Washington Post.

In the documentary, Aziz once again recounted his alibi: “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.”

A few months after the series’ release, The Dead Are Arising, a Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winning biography of Malcolm by journalists Les and Tamara Payne, argued convincingly that the two men had been wrongfully convicted.

Faced with mounting compelling arguments in favor of the men’s innocence, Vance formally launched an investigation into the case in 2020. Speaking with the Times, the district attorney apologized on behalf of the FBI and the NYPD.

“This points to the truth that law enforcement over history has often failed to live up to its responsibilities,” he said. “These men did not get the justice that they deserved.”