A Black man finally exonerated in the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X stood inside a Manhattan courtroom Thursday to hear a deeply apologetic prosecutor and judge finally declare his innocence.
Octogenarian Muhammad Aziz addressed the court after prosecutors released a detailed and damning court filing exposing the decades-old federal and NYPD misconduct that helped put two innocent Black men behind bars in the cold-blooded execution of the Muslim leader.
"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," declared Aziz, whose co-defendant died in 2009.
"While I do not need this court, these prosecutors, or a piece of paper to tell me I am innocent, I am very glad that my family, my friends and the attorneys who have worked and supported me all of these years are finally seeing the truth we have all known, officially recognized."
Remembering the life and legacy of Malcolm X
The pair were tried and convicted by the Manhattan district attorney in a trial rife with misconduct and misdirection. Despite his ultimate acquittal, Aziz said little had changed over the ensuing decades.
"The events that brought us to court today should never have occurred," he said. "Those events were and are the result of a process that was corrupt in this court, one that is all too familiar to Black people in 2021."
The 43-page document made public by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. recounted a litany of errors in the prosecution: A lack of forensic evidence linking the two to the Audubon Ballroom slaying. The withholding of information by the NYPD and FBI. Sketchy police lineups — and the decision to keep three undercover cops at the scene on Feb. 21, 1965, from testifying at trial.
The coverup went to the top of U.S. law enforcement, with late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordering agency informants to hide their ties with the feds when talking with investigators about the murder.
"The prosecutors were not in possession or aware of the information gathered by the NYPD and the FBI which we found exculpatory," the report declared. "The FBI and NYPD files do not indicate that the information was ever disclosed to prosecutors.
"To the contrary, there are indications in the FBI file that information was deliberately withheld."
The blockbuster findings came more than three decades after wrongly convicted Aziz and Khalil Islam were finally released from prison following a 1966 trial where the FBI, the NYPD and prosecutors withheld evidence likely to convince a jury of their innocence, officials said.
"I want to begin by apologizing directly to Mr. Aziz and his family, to the family of Mr. Islam, and the family of Malcolm X," said Vance during the hearing. "I apologize for what were serious, unacceptable violations of the law and the public trust. … There is only one ultimate conclusion: Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were wrongfully convicted of this crime."
Justice Ellen Biben agreed.
"There can be no question that this is a case that cries out for fundamental justice," Biben said. "To Mr. Aziz and your family, and to the family of Mr. Islam, I regret that this court cannot fully undo the serious miscarriages of justice in this case and give you back the many years that were lost."
The judge then vacated Aziz and Islam's convictions to a round of applause in the packed courtroom.
Unredacted FBI documents viewed by the investigators showed the agency inaccurately insisted its files at the time contained "no original information developed by [the feds]," the report said. NYPD documents supporting the innocence of the two men were also missing from the documents shared with prosecutors, the report said.
Malcolm X, only 39, was shot 16 times in the wild assassination before a crowd of 400 people, including his pregnant wife and three of their daughters. One of the killers blasted the victim from close range with a shotgun.
"No physical evidence tied Aziz or Islam to the murder or the crime," the report read. "There was no evidence that Aziz or Islam had any connection to [co-defendant Mujahid Abdul] Halim. Again, the people's case against Aziz and Islam rested entirely on eyewitness testimony."
Halim, who admitted repeatedly shooting the wounded Malcolm as the activist was lying helpless on the ballroom stage, even acknowledged to his co-defendants as they waited together in a jail cell during the trial that both were innocent.
The report cited one sloppy identification procedure in which police arranged for an eyewitness to view a second, smaller lineup after he initially looked at a lineup featuring men of different sizes and complexions. After the witness mentioned the shooters wore gray coats, he was shown a second lineup with just two men wearing gray coats — one of them Aziz.
Vance, joined by attorneys for the two suspects, conducted a painstaking 22-month investigation that cleared both men in the stunning execution. Aziz spent 19 years behind bars, while co-defendant Islam served 21 years and died in 2009.
Defense witnesses at the trial testified both men were at home on the day of the murder, as did the defendants, and there was no physical evidence linking either man to the slaying, the report noted.
The report also detailed how a New York Daily News reporter received an anonymous call on the morning of February 21, 1965, with a familiar voice from prior calls announcing Malcolm X, Sen. Robert Kennedy, Mayor Robert Wagner and Councilman Robert Lowe would all be murdered.
After Malcolm X was killed, the reporter contacted police.
[via New York Daily News]