Two men who served decades in prison for the 1965 assassination of civil rights icon Malcolm X were officially canceled on Thursday.
But only one of them, Muhammad Aziz, was in the New York City courtroom to hear a judge announce his exoneration – and finally see the long-delayed justice.
The other wrongly convicted man, Khalil Islam, went to his grave in 2009 insisting on his innocence.
“I am an 83-year-old man who was a victim of the criminal justice system,” Aziz, who wore a mask, told court shortly before being exonerated.
New York County Supreme Court Judge Ellen Biben agreed.
“I regret that this tribunal cannot remedy the serious miscarriage of justice,” she said. “There is no doubt that this is a case that demands fundamental justice.”
Moments later, Aziz’s name was cleared and he was shaking hands with his lawyers and hugging family members in the courtroom amid loud applause.
Outside the Lower Manhattan courthouse, the jubilant sons of Islam savored the moment with tears in their eyes.
“It’s good but bittersweet,” said Ameen Johnson, 57.
His 56-year-old brother, Shahid Johnson, said what happened to his father says a lot about the US justice system.
“It can’t be a correct system because it wouldn’t take that long” to exonerate his father, he said.
Earlier, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance apologized to Aziz and Islam on behalf of the law enforcement agencies who sent them to jail.
“I want to start by saying directly to Mr. Aziz and his family, as well as the family of Mr. Islam and Malcolm X that I apologize,” Vance said. “We cannot restore what was taken from these men and their families, but by correcting the record, perhaps we can begin to restore that faith. “
Vance was followed by civil rights lawyer David Shanies who told the court that “these men have become victims of the same racism and injustice that Malcolm X has opposed.”
Then, referring specifically to Aziz, he said, “He has faced enough injustice and suffering for a thousand lives. “
On Wednesday, Aziz released a statement via the attorneys who fought for him and for the succession of Islam – the Innocence Project and the Shanies Law Office, a New York-based civil rights law firm.
“The events that brought us here should never have happened; these events were and are the result of a process that was corrupt in its essence – a process that is all too familiar – even in 2021, ”he said.
“While I don’t need a court, prosecutors, or a piece of paper to tell me I’m innocent, I’m happy that my family, friends and the lawyers who have helped and supported me all these years are finally seeing the truth. we have all known, officially recognized ”, he declared.
The exoneration of Aziz and Islam capped a 22-month joint investigation by their attorneys and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office into the series of events that culminated in the wrongful convictions.
It also confirmed decades of speculation that the case had been mismanaged from the start.
Malcolm X was shot on February 21, 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, where hundreds of people had gathered to hear him speak. Inside the ballroom, several men opened fire, hitting him on stage.
Three members of the Nation of Islam were arrested: Mujahid Abdul Halim, then known as Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagan; Aziz, then known as Norman 3X Butler; and Islam, then known as Thomas 15X Johnson.
Halim admitted to having played a role in the assassination but maintained that Aziz and Islam were not involved, according to Project Innocence.
Nonetheless, all three were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in 1966.
Then last year, a Netflix documentary series called “Who Killed Malcolm X?” raised enough questions about the case for Vance to say he would reconsider the men’s convictions.
Among the questions raised in the series: Aziz had a strong alibi. He had injured his leg and had gone to the hospital just hours before the assassination. And the doctor who treated him had taken his defense.
“On the day of the murder, which was a Sunday morning, I was lying on the couch with my foot in the air and heard it on the radio,” recalls Aziz in “Who Killed Malcolm X?”
Halim eventually identified four other men who he said were involved in the assassination. But a judge at the time rejected a motion to quash Aziz and Islam’s convictions.
Aziz, in his statement, said he didn’t know “how many more years I have to be creative.”
“However, I hope that the same system that was responsible for this travesty of justice will also take responsibility for the immeasurable harm it has caused me.”