Words by Nya Furber, Staff Writer

Trigger warnings for death.

The 1966 convictions of two men found guilty of the murder of civil rights leader Malcolm X were overturned on Thursday the 18th November, after over half a decade of maintaining their innocence. 

Malcolm X was due to speak at the Audubon Ballroom in New York on February 21st, 1965, when three men opened fire and killed the civil rights leader. It is one of the most notorious murders of the civil rights era and the resulting convictions of Muhammad A. Aziz and the late Khalil Islam have been disputed by historians and scholars for years. 

New York County Supreme Court Judge Ellen Biben stated when overturning the convictions, “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.” Upon granting the motion to vacate the convictions, the courtroom burst into applause. 

The exonerations of Aziz and Islam came after a 22-month review into the case. The review into the convictions of both men was prompted by the release of Netflix miniseries, ‘Who Killed Malcolm X?’. The investigation was undertaken by the Manhattan district attorney’s office, the Innocence Project, and the lawyers of both men. 

Their review found that exculpatory evidence had been withheld in the case, including conflicting eyewitness testimony and solid alibis for both Aziz and Islam. In the motion to vacate, both the NYPD and FBI were found to have purposely kept this information from reaching the trial. District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. made the following remarks on the withheld evidence: 

“…We have obtained dozens and dozens of reports, from the FBI and the NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations. 

These records include FBI reports of witnesses who failed to identify Mr. Islam and who implicated other suspects. And, significantly, we now have reports revealing that, on orders from Director J. Edgar Hoover himself, the FBI ordered multiple witnesses not to tell police or prosecutors that they were, in fact, FBI informants…Many of those documents were exculpatory. None of them were disclosed to the defense. Without these files, it is clear these men did not receive a fair trial, and their convictions must be vacated.”

The conviction of a third man, Mujahdi Abdul Halim, remains in place. Halim confessed to his involvement in the killing and has always maintained the innocence of Aziz and Islam. Halim signed two affidavits asserting this fact, neither of which resulted in a reopening of the case. 

Aziz, now 83, addressed the court on Thursday, saying, “The events that brought us to court today should never have occurred. Those events were and are the result of a process that was corrupt to its core, one that is all too familiar to black people in 2021.”

Other suspects implicated in the killing are now deceased. 

The Innocence Project have been involved in representing the two men and co-founder Barry Scheck criticised the wrongful conviction, stating “The damage done to them and their families…is immeasurable.” Scheck also added that he believed that if the exculpatory evidence had not been hidden, “it would have changed the civil rights movement in this country.” 

These unjust convictions have taken 55 years to be corrected, raising the question of how culpable law enforcement agencies should be for gross oversights and negligence.

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