NYC district attorney moves to clear names of 2 men in Malcom X's 1965 assassination

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Wednesday, November 17, 2021
Norman 3X Butler, 26, a suspect in the slaying of Malcolm X, is escorted by detectives at police headquarters, after his arrest, in New York, Feb. 26, 1965.
(AP Photo, File

NEW YORK CITY -- Nearly 57 years after the assassination of Malcolm X, a New York City district attorney announced Wednesday that he is moving to vacate the convictions of two of the men convicted as accomplices.

Muhammad Aziz, now 83 and previously known as Norman Butler, spent 22 years in prison before he was paroled in 1985.

"The events that led to my exoneration should never have occurred," he 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."

A co-defendant who also maintained his innocence, Khalil Islam, died in 2009.

The office of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, along with the Innocence Project and civil rights attorney David Shanies, began reexamining the investigation last year.

"The assassination of Malcolm X was a historic event that demanded a scrupulous investigation and prosecution but instead produced one of the most blatant miscarriages of justice that I have ever seen," said Barry Scheck, with the Innocence Project. "Officially correcting the false historical narrative around one of the most significant events in 20th century U.S. history allows us to learn from and prevent future miscarriages of justice. Indeed, as George Orwell once said, 'He who controls the past controls the future.' Nowhere is that seen more clearly than in this case."

The investigation found that prosecutors, the FBI, and the NYPD withheld key evidence that would likely have led to the men's acquittal.

"It took five decades of unprecedented work by scholars and activists and the creation of a Conviction Integrity Program at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office willing to engage in a true joint re-investigation for these wrongful convictions to be officially acknowledged and rectified," said Vanessa Potkin, also with the Innocence Project. "The recently unearthed evidence of Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam's innocence that had been hidden by the NYPD and FBI not only invalidates their convictions, it also highlights the many unanswered questions about the government's complicity in the assassination - a separate and important issue that, itself, demands further inquiry."

Confessed assassin Thomas Hagan had long said neither man participated in killing Malcolm X on February 21, 1965.

"This marks a significant and long overdue milestone for Muhammad Aziz and the memory of Khalil Islam," Shanies said. "These innocent men experienced the agony of decades in prison for a crime they did not commit. They were robbed of their freedom in the prime of their lives and branded the killers of a towering civil rights leader. Muhammad is now 83, and Khalil passed away years ago without ever having had the chance to see his name cleared. They, their families, and their communities have endured decades of pain and suffering. The tragic and unjust events of the past can never be erased but exonerating these men is a righteous and well-deserved affirmation of their true character. We are grateful to the New York County District Attorney's Office for its collaboration, transparency, and fairness during the past two years that led to this exoneration."

The inquiry does not identify Malcom X's real killer or any government conspiracy. Those who were previously implicated are long deceased.

"What was widely known 55 years ago is now being formally acknowledged: that Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam are innocent, and that they should have never been arrested, charged, or convicted for a murder they did not commit," said Deborah Francois, with Shanies Law. "Muhammad's and Khalil's convictions were the product of gross official misconduct and a criminal justice system weighed against people of color. Their exoneration was decades in the making and is proof that we need-and are able-to do better."

At a news conference Thursday, Vance will apologize on behalf of the law enforcement community, admitting it failed the families of the accused.

Malcolm X was gunned down as he began a speech.