Two of the three men convicted of killing Malcolm X will be acquitted Thursday after insisting on their innocence since the 1965 assassination of one of America’s most formidable civil rights fighters, Manhattan’s top prosecutor said Wednesday.

Prosecutors now say authorities withheld evidence that favored the defense in the trial of Muhammad Aziz, now 83, and Khalil Islam, according to The New York Times. Aziz and Islam spent decades in prison for the crime, but a recent documentary sparked a nearly two-year investigation by their lawyers and the Manhattan district attorney’s office. A court date is expected Thursday.

“These men did not get the justice they deserved,” District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. told the Times.

Vance later tweeted that his office, the Innocence Project and the office of civil rights attorney David Shanies would ask a judge to overturn the convictions, and that more details would be released Thursday. A trial date is expected to be set.

The Malcom X story

Malcolm X, one of the most controversial and compelling figures of the civil rights era, rose to fame as a leading spokesman for the Nation of Islam, proclaiming the message of the black Muslim organization of the time: racial separatism as the path to self-realization. He famously called on blacks to claim civil rights “by any means.”

He split from the Nation of Islam about a year before he was gunned down as he began a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on February 21, 1965. Aziz, Islam and a third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim – known at the time of the assassination as Talmadge Hayer and also as Thomas Hagan – were convicted of murder in March 1966 and sentenced to life in prison.

Hagan said he was one of three gunmen who shot Malcolm X, but testified that neither Aziz nor Islam were involved. The two, then known as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15 Johnson, maintained throughout that they were innocent and offered alibis at their 1966 trial. No physical evidence linked them to the crime. “Thomas 15X Johnson and Norman 3X Butler had nothing to do with this crime whatsoever,” Hagan said in a 1977 affidavit.

Hagan was paroled in 2010. On Wednesday, a message was left on a phone number he had when he was paroled. He identified two other men as gunmen, but no one else was arrested.

The Malcom X murder investigation

According to The New York Times, the new investigation found that the FBI had documents pointing to other suspects, and a still-living witness supported Aziz’s alibi: that he was at home with a leg injury at the time of the shooting.

The witness, whom authorities had never interviewed before and identified only by the initials “J.M.,” said he had spoken to Aziz on his home phone the day of the killing, according to the newspaper.

In addition, the review found that prosecutors knew, but did not disclose, that there were undercover officers in the ballroom when the shooting occurred, and that police knew someone had called the New York Daily News earlier in the day saying Malcolm X would be killed.

“This was not mere carelessness,” Deborah Francois, an attorney for Aziz and Islam, told the Times. “This was the product of extreme and gross official misconduct.”

Aziz was released in 1985. Islam was released two years later and died in 2009. “I need to be exonerated,” Islam said in a 2008 talk at a Harlem bookstore. “I had to spend 22 years in prison.”

The Manhattan district attorney’s office publicly acknowledged it was considering reopening the case after Netflix aired the documentary series “Who Killed Malcolm X?” last year. The series explored investigators’ theory that the two men were innocent and that some of the real killers had escaped.


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