Two men who served decades in prison for the 1965 assassination of civil rights icon Malcolm X had their convictions formally thrown out Thursday.
But only one them, Muhammad Aziz, was in the New York City courtroom to hear a judge announce his exoneration — and see long-delayed justice finally done.
The other wrongly convicted man, Khalil Islam, went to his grave in 2009 insisting he was innocent.
“I’m an 83-year-old man who was victimized by the criminal justice system,” Aziz, who was wearing a mask, told the court shortly before he was exonerated.
New York County Supreme Court Judge Ellen Biben agreed.
"I regret that this court cannot undo the serious miscarriage of justice," she said. “There can be no question that this is a case that cries out for fundamental justice."
Moments later, Aziz' name was cleared and he was shaking the hands of his lawyers and hugging family members in the courtroom amid loud applause.
Outside the courthouse in Lower Manhattan, Islam's jubilant sons savored the moment with tears in their eyes.
"It's good but bittersweet," said Ameen Johnson, 57.
His 56-year-old brother, Shahid Johnson, said what happened to his father speaks volumes about the American justice system.
"It can't be a system that's correct because it wouldn't take this long" to exonerate his father, he said.
Earlier, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance apologized to Aziz and Islam on behalf of the law enforcement agencies that sent them to prison.
“I want to begin by saying directly to Mr. Aziz and his family, and the family of Mr. Islam, and of Malcolm X that I apologize,” Vance said. “We can’t restore what was taken from these men and their families, but by correcting the record, perhaps we can begin to restore that faith.”
Vance was followed by civil rights attorney David Shanies who told the court "these men became victims of the same racism and injustice Malcolm X stood against."
Then referring specifically to Aziz, he said: “He has faced enough injustice and suffering for a thousand lifetimes.”
On Wednesday, Aziz released a statement via the lawyers who went to bat for him and for Islam's estate — the Innocence Project and the Shanies Law Office, a New York-based civil rights law firm.
“The events that brought us here 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 — even in 2021,” he said.
“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,” he said.
The exoneration of Aziz and Islam capped a 22-month joint investigation by their lawyers and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office into the series of events that resulted in the wrongful convictions.
It also confirmed decades of speculation that the case was mishandled from the start.
Malcolm X was gunned down Feb. 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, where hundreds had gathered to hear him speak. Inside the ballroom, several men opened fire, striking him onstage.
Three Nation of Islam members were arrested: Mujahid Abdul Halim, then known as Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagan; Aziz, then known as Norman 3X Butler; and Islam, then known as Thomas 15X Johnson.
Halim admitted to playing a role in the assassination but maintained that Aziz and Islam had not taken part in it, according to the Innocence Project.
Nevertheless, all three were convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1966.
Then last year, a Netflix documentary series titled “Who Killed Malcolm X?” raised enough questions about the case that Vance announced that he would review the men’s convictions.
Among the issues raised in the series: Aziz had a solid alibi. He had injured his leg and gone to a hospital only hours before the assassination. And the doctor who treated him had taken the stand in his defense.
“The day of the murder, which was a Sunday morning, I was lying over the couch with my foot up and I heard it over the radio,” Aziz recalled in “Who Killed Malcolm X?”
Halim eventually identified four other men who he said were involved in the assassination. But a judge at the time rejected a motion to vacate Aziz’s and Islam’s convictions.
Aziz, in his statement, said he did 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.”