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2 men convicted of killing civil rights leader Malcolm X are exonerated in court

Muhammad Aziz, center, stands outside the courthouse with members of his family after his conviction in the killing of Malcolm X was vacated on Thursday in New York. A Manhattan judge dismissed the convictions of Aziz and the late Khalil Islam, after prosecutors and the lawyers said a renewed investigation found new evidence that the men were not involved with the killing.
Muhammad Aziz, center, stands outside the courthouse with members of his family after his conviction in the killing of Malcolm X was vacated on Thursday in New York. A Manhattan judge dismissed the convictions of Aziz and the late Khalil Islam, after prosecutors and the lawyers said a renewed investigation found new evidence that the men were not involved with the killing.

Updated November 18, 2021 at 4:42 PM ET

Two of the three men convicted of killing the civil rights activist Malcolm X were exonerated in a Manhattan court Thursday.

A judge dismissed the convictions of Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam after a 22-month investigation unveiled new evidence of the men's innocence.

The judge determined that authorities withheld some evidence that might have cleared them during the investigation.

"The event that has brought us to court today should never have occurred," Aziz told the court, according to The Associated Press. "I am an 83-year-old man who was victimized by the criminal justice system."

District Attorney Cy Vance and lawyers representing the two men announced Wednesday they would ask the court to "vacate the wrongful convictions" of Aziz and Islam — a move that debunks the official account about the assassination of the fiery orator who was murdered onstage in 1965 in a hail of bullets in front of hundreds of people, including his daughters and pregnant wife.

Muhammad Aziz a suspect in the slaying of Malcolm X, is escorted by detectives at police headquarters, after his arrest, in New York, Feb. 26, 1965. Aziz, previously known as Norman 3XButler, is set to be cleared after more than half a century, with prosecutors now saying authorities withheld evidence in the civil rights leader's killing, according to a news report Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.
/ AP
Muhammad Aziz, a suspect in the slaying of Malcolm X, is escorted by detectives at police headquarters after his arrest in New York on Feb. 26, 1965. Aziz, previously known as Norman 3X Butler, was cleared after more than half a century, with prosecutors now saying authorities withheld evidence in the civil rights leader's killing, according to a news report Wednesday.

Aziz and Islam, members of the Nation of Islam, were sentenced to life in prison a year later alongside Mujahid Abdul Halim, then known as Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagan.

While Halim confessed to the murder during the trial, he testified that neither Aziz nor Islam was involved. But he declined to name the men who had joined him in the attack.

Meanwhile, Islam, then known as Thomas 15X Johnson, and Aziz, then known as Norman 3X Butler, always maintained their innocence.

Khalil Islam, center, is booked as the third suspect in the slaying of Malcolm X, in New York, March 3, 1965. Islam, previously known as Thomas 15X Johnson, one of two men convicted in the assassination of Malcolm X, is set to be cleared after more than half a century.
/ AP
Khalil Islam (center) is booked as the third suspect in the slaying of Malcolm X in New York on March 3, 1965. Islam, previously known as Thomas 15X Johnson, one of two men convicted in the assassination of Malcolm X, was cleared after more than half a century.

Halim eventually gave the names of four men who he said were his accomplices in 1978. But his testimony failed to persuade officials to reopen the investigation of the murder and a judge rejected a motion to vacate the convictions.

Halim was released in 2010 after spending more than 40 years in prison. Islam was released in 1987 and died in 2009. Aziz, who was released on parole in 1985, fought to clear his name with the help of the Innocence Project.

Suspicion and speculation that the FBI and NYPD had mishandled the case, deliberately withholding or ignoring information that would have ensured Islam and Aziz's freedom, has persisted for more than a half-century. And in 2020, a documentary called Who Killed Malcolm X? raised a slew of new questions ultimately prompting Vance to launch a new investigation.

"The day of the murder, which was a Sunday morning, I was laying over the couch with my [injured] foot up and I heard it over the radio," Aziz remembers in Who Killed Malcolm X?

According to the Innocence Project, "In addition to multiple alibi witnesses, a doctor who treated Aziz at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx just hours before Malcolm's murder took the stand in Aziz's defense."

Over the last 22 months, Vance's team has unearthed FBI documents that would have cast doubt on the involvement of Aziz and Islam. That evidence was available at the time of the trial but was withheld from the defense and prosecution.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 18, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of the headline misspelled the name of Malcolm X as Malcom X.