Two men convicted of murdering Malcolm X in 1965 to have convictions thrown out tomorrow
The two men convicted of assassinating renowned civil rights leader Malcolm X in 1965 are expected to be exonerated on Thursday, their lawyers and the Manhattan district attorney said Wednesday.
Muhammad Aziz, 83, and the late Khalil Islam, who both spent decades in prison for the crime, were being exonerated after a nearly two-year investigation by their lawyers and the Manhattan district attorney’s office, a report by the New York Times revealed.
In an interview with the outlet, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. apologized on behalf of those who convicted the two Black Muslim men, and admitted that key missteps occurred during the 1966 trial.
‘This points to the truth that law enforcement over history has often failed to live up to its responsibilities,’ Vance Jr. said.
‘These men did not get the justice that they deserved.’
Muhammad Aziz, pictured at left being escorted by detectives after his arrest in New York in 1965, and alleged accomplice Khalil Islam, who died in 2009, will be exonerated for the assassination on Thursday, attorneys say
Malcolm X was gunned down as he began a speech in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom on Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965
The decision to nix their convictions comes after a 22-month investigation into allegations that prosecutors, the FBI, and the New York Police Department withheld crucial evidence in the case that would have acquitted the pair – who both received life sentences for their alleged part in the killing, but were paroled in the 80s.
Both men maintained their innocence for the entirety of their incarcerations – which amounted to a combined 42 years – and long afterwards as well, with Islam attesting he had no role in the assassination at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights on February 21, 1965, until his dying day, and a now elderly Aziz still standing by that same sentiment.
What’s more, the third man arrested for the killing, Thomas Hagan, the only one of the three to confess to the crime, long insisted that Aziz and Islam were not guilty – first attesting to that sentiment when he took the stand during the 1966 trial to confess to his part in the killing.
The third man arrested for the killing, Thomas Hagan, now 80 and out of jail, was the only one of the three to confess to the crime, and long insisted that Aziz and Islam were not guilty – first attesting to that sentiment when he took the stand for a second time during the 1966 trial
Hagan, now 80, and once a member of the Nation of Islam along with the soon-to-be exonerated pair, told investigators Malcolm X was targeted because of his 1964 split with the leadership of the political organization, a movement for which he had once served as the lead spokesman – with Aziz and Islam playing no part in the conspiracy.
Hagan was freed from a prison in April of 2010 at the age of 69, serving 45 years of his life sentence.
A divisive figure during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Malcom X was renowned for his fierce, repeated attempts to empower the African-American community, through firebrand speeches and strong statements urging black men and women across the globe to unite against what he called white oppression.
A minister and leading figure for the Nation of Islam during the first half of the decade, he was considered a great orator and a fierce advocate of black nationalism – but his decision to leave the Nation in 1964 jilted many who had previously rallied behind the impassioned activist.
With that said, the influential figure also had enemies on the other end of the racial and political spectrum, due to a long track record of contentious comments slamming the US government, religion, law enforcement, and white people in general.
Historians and legal experts have long raised questions concerning the convictions, with many citing that the three Black Muslim men had been hastily arrested and tried on tenuous evidence.
However, interest in the case skyrocketed earlier this year, in February, after the family of deceased former NYPD officer stationed in the Harlem ballroom during the assassination released a letter penned by the African-American cop, Ray Wood, in 2011, confessing that he, the NYPD, and the federal government arranged for Malcolm X not to be adequately protected during his speech.
He also confessed to helping frame Islam, in particular.
In an interview with the Times, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. apologized on behalf of those involved in convicting the two Black Muslim men and said key missteps occurred in the 1966 trial, leading to the pair being found guilty
The public’s fascination with the case’s questionable convictions was further compounded that same month when Netflix released of a six-part documentary chronicling the assassination, its buildup, and aftermath, titled, ‘Who Killed Malcolm X?’
Vance’s reopening of the case, however, started well before the surge of renewed interest in the 55-year-old initial investigation, nearly two years ago.
The Manhattan DA oversaw the lengthy probe alongside the Innocence Project – nonprofit legal organization that is committed to exonerating individuals who have been wrongly convicted – and civil rights lawyer David Shanies, with the team reportedly uncovering enough evidence to exonerate the two men.
According to Vance, the reinvestigation process managed to stand up an alibi given to police by Aziz after his 1965 arrest.
What’s more, the group’s findings reportedly also implicated other suspects aside from Aziz and Islam, and further revealed that prosecutors hid the fact that undercover police were discreetly stationed throughout the Harlem concert hall when Malcolm X was shot multiple times by three men, one toting a shotgun and the other two brandishing pistols, as the activist was starting to speak – bolstering Wood’s deathbed claim.
The civil rights activist, one of the most influential black men in the modern era, was shot at least 15 times in front of his pregnant wife and three of his daughters during the chaos – with a blast from the shotgun proving to be the fatal blow.
After the assassination, Hagan, then known by name bestowed upon him by The Nation of Islam, Mujahid Abdul Halim, was the first to be apprehended, taken down by cops in the ballroom after being shot in the thigh.
Aziz, then known as Norman 3X Butler, was cuffed five days later, and Islam, then known as Thomas 15X Johnson, five days after that.
Within a week, the three men, all members of the Nation, had been charged with first-degree murder.
At the subsequent trial in 1966, prosecutors labeled Islam, once Malcolm X’s personal chauffeur, as the gunman who fired the fatal shotgun blast.
Aziz and Hagan were said to have been the pair providing cover fire with the pistols.
Ten eyewitnesses said they had seen Islam or Aziz – with multiple fingering both.
However, the witness statements were found to contradict one another, and no physical evidence tied Aziz or Islam to the murder or the scene of the crime.
What’s more, both men provided air-tight alibis, which were attested by testimony from their spouses and friends.
And, as mentioned, Hagan repeatedly told investigators and jurists that the pair had nothing to do with the murder.
But, nonetheless, on March 11, 1966, all three defendants were found guilty and subsequently sentenced to life in prison.
Aziz was released on parole in 1985, while Islam was released two years later, in 1987.
He died in 2009.
In prison, both men changed their names and converted to a more mainstream, less radicalized form of Islam, with Islam deciding to reject the teachings of the Nation altogether.
Aziz, on the other hand, was able to obtain both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in religious studies while incarcerated, and worked as chief of security for a Harlem mosque upon his release.
He has since retired and currently lives in New York.
Malcolm X’s family releases late cop’s ‘deathbed’ letter that claims FBI and police conspired in the civil rights leader’s 1965 assassination
Exactly 56 years since Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City, lawyers and family members of the late civil rights leader have released a letter they claim shows the NYPD and FBI conspired in his murder.
The note, said to be a deathbed confession made by Ray Wood, a former undercover NYPD officer, was unveiled in a press conference by civil rights attorney Ben Crump on Saturday.
Wood claims in his letter that the FBI and the NYPD conspired to kill Malcolm X, who was gunned down on February 21, 1965 inside Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom during a rally.
He alleged that he was pressured by his NYPD supervisors to lure two members of Malcolm X’s security detail into committing crimes that resulted in their arrest just days before the shooting.
Those arrests kept the two men from managing door security at the ballroom on the night Malcolm was killed, according to the letter.
‘My job was to infiltrate civil rights organizations throughout New York City, to find evidence of criminal activity, so the FBI could discredit and arrest its leaders,’ Wood stated in the letter.
‘Under the direction of my handlers I was told to encourage leaders and members of civil rights groups to commit felonious acts.’
Exactly 56 years since Malcolm X (right) was assassinated in New York City, lawyers and family members of the late civil rights leader have released a letter they claim shows the NYPD and FBI conspired in his murder. (Pictured left is Reggie Wood, Ray Wood’s cousin)
During Saturday’s conference Wood’s cousin, Reggie Wood, said he confessed to his involvement in 2011 when he believed a worsening cancer would take his life. He ultimately went into remission and lived until November 2020
In his later, dated January 25, 2011, the former officer claimed his actions were done under duress and fear of retaliation.
‘After witnessing repeated brutality at the hands of my colleagues (police), I tried to resign. Instead, I was threatened with arrest by pinning marijuana and alcohol trafficking charges on me if I did not follow through with the assignments.’
On February 16, 1965 Wood claims he coerced members of Malcolm X’s security detail into plan a bombing at the Statue of Liberty.
The plan was then foiled by police and the two men were ‘arrested just days before the assassination of Malcolm. At the time I was not aware that Malcolm X was the target,’ Wood wrote.
Wood signed the letter and instructed his cousin to hold the information until after his passing.
‘It is my hope that this information is received with the understanding that I have carried these secrets with a heavy heart and remorsefully regret my participation in this matter.’
During Saturday’s conference Wood’s cousin, Reggie Wood, said he confessed to his involvement in 2011 when he believed a worsening cancer would take his life. He ultimately went into remission and lived until November 2020.
‘For 10 years, I have carried this confession secretly in fear of what could happen to my family and myself if the government found out what I knew,’ Reggie Wood said.
Now Malcolm X’s three daughters – Qubiliah, Ilyasah, and Gamilah Shabazz – joined civil rights attorney Ben Crump demanding for the murder investigation to be re-opened in light of the ‘new evidence’ shared Saturday.
‘Any evidence that provides greater insight into the truth behind that terrible tragedy should be thoroughly investigated,’ said Ilyasah Shabazz.
Malcolm X was shot seconds after stepping to a lectern to speak inside the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965
Two policemen carry stretcher bearing Malcom X after he was downed by an assassin’s bullets at a rally
An autopsy later revealed that he had suffered a total of 21 gunshot wounds to his chest, arms and legs
In his later, dated January 25, 2011, the former officer claimed his actions were done under duress and fear of retaliations
Attorney Ray Hamlin added: ‘So, what we’re trying to do is talk about restorative justice is as lawyers – try to pursue relentless justice.
‘On behalf of the legacy of Malcolm X, Dr. Betty Shabazz, on behalf of his family his lineage who is here.’
Three Nation of Islam members, Mujahid Abdul Halim (also known as Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagan), Muhammad Abdul Aziz (also known as Norman 3X Butler) and Khalil Islam (also known as Thomas 15X Johnson), were convicted of Malcolm X’s murder in 1966 and sentenced to life in prison.
While Halim admitted to taking part in the assassination, he insisted that Aziz and Islam were not involved. And the two maintained their innocence throughout the years.
Islam died in 2009 and Halim and Aziz have since been paroled.
Last year the Manhattan DA began a review of their Islam and Aziz’s convictions after meeting with representatives of the Innocence Project.
Now, with the new evidence, the DA’s office says ‘the review of this matter is active and ongoing.’
The NYPD said in a separate statement it has ‘provided all available records relevant to that case to the District Attorney’ and ‘remains committed to assist with that review in any way.’
The FBI declined to comment on the matter.
‘For 10 years, I have carried this confession secretly in fear of what could happen to my family and myself if the government found out what I knew,’ Reggie Wood said
Malcolm X was a powerful orator who rose to prominence as the national spokesman of the Nation of Islam, an African-American Muslim group that espoused Black separatism.
He spent more than a decade with the group before becoming disillusioned and publicly breaking with it in 1964. He moderated some of his earlier views on the benefits of racial separation.
Malcolm X was shot seconds after stepping to a lectern to speak inside the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965.
Seconds before, a man had stood up and yelled, ‘N***** get your hand out of my pocket!’
As Malcolm X and his entourage attempted to quell the disturbance, a man rushed forward towards the stage and shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun, and two other men then opened fire with semi-automatic handguns.
The civil rights activist was rushed to Columbia Presbyterian where he was pronounced dead shortly after arrival, at 3:30pm.
An autopsy later revealed that he had suffered a total of 21 gunshot wounds to his chest, arms and legs.
Thomas Hagan, 22, struggles with police who take him from the scene outside the ballroom where Malcolm X was shot and killed
‘Any evidence that provides greater insight into the truth behind that terrible tragedy should be thoroughly investigated,’ said Ilyasah Shabazz
Days earlier, Malcolm X had ominously told a reporter that he believed members of the Nation of Islam were seeking to kill him.
He was being surveilled by the FBI at the time. His home in Queens was firebombed the week before his death.
Almost immediately after his death, conspiracies of police involvement in the assassination began to circulate.
Many of the theories centered on the ease in which the assassins were able to enter the ballroom, and the police’s perceived failure to preserve the crime scene.
One of the officers involved, Tony Bouza, would later write in his 2011 book ‘Manny Marable’s Malcolm X’ that the ‘investigation was botched.’