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State, city of New York to pay $36 million to men exonerated in Malcolm X’s murder

Muhammad Aziz and the family of the late Khalil Islam will share the settlement after their wrongful convictions for Malcolm X's assassination, their attorney said.
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The state and city of New York have agreed to pay a man and the family of his late co-defendant $36 million for their wrongful convictions in the 1965 assassination of civil rights leader Malcolm X.

Muhammad Aziz, 84, and Khalil Islam, who died in 2009 at age 74, were convicted alongside Mujahid Abdul Halim in the fatal shooting of Black Muslims' most high-profile spokesman, Malcolm X, during the start of a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City on Feb. 21, 1965.

The attorney for Aziz and Islam said Sunday that the city agreed to settle for a total of $26 million to cover the claims of both plaintiffs and that the state agreed to $10 million.

The City of New York Law Department said through a spokesperson Sunday, "This settlement brings some measure of justice to individuals who spent decades in prison and bore the stigma of being falsely accused of murdering an iconic figure."

Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam after their arrests in 1965.
Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam after their arrests in 1965.AP

The Law Department said it stands by its 2021 conclusion, when then-Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said, "There is one ultimate conclusion: Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were wrongfully convicted of this crime."

A judge formally exonerated the pair. Aziz, commenting on his conviction and sentence, said America's justice system was "corrupt to its core."

Halim admitted to shooting Malcolm X, but he insisted his co-defendants were not involved. Aziz and Islam, convicted alongside Halim in 1966, offered alibis that they were home at the time of the attack, according to a history of the case by the National Registry of Exonerations.

All three received life sentences; Aziz and Islam were released in the 1980s. Halim was paroled in 2010, although he enjoyed two decades of limited freedom via a work-release program.

Aziz and Islam had maintained their innocence from the day they were accused.

Prosecutors believed Aziz and Islam were used as muscle for the Nation of Islam, Black Muslims' predominant organization. Malcolm X, reviled by some white leaders for embracing "any means necessary" in the fight for civil rights, had a falling-out with the group just before he was assassinated, after a trip to Mecca.

Muhammad Aziz
Muhammad Aziz outside the courthouse with family members after his conviction in the killing of Malcolm X was vacated on Nov. 18, 2021, in New York.Seth Wenig / AP

Malcolm X started to soften to the concept of racial unity. Among those said to be unhappy with his independent direction was the Nation of Islam's leader, Elijah Muhammad.

The defendants were identified as assailants by witnesses under legal processes unlikely to pass muster in a contemporary courtroom. Aziz suggested that authorities might have brought in witnesses to look at him in informal circumstances without his knowledge, rather than in a formal lineup.

In early 2020, as Netflix began streaming the documentary series "Who Killed Malcolm X?" Vance reopened the case files of Aziz and Islam, and late last year, his office moved to vacate the convictions and dismiss charges.

Among the office's findings was that the FBI failed to share evidence that might have exonerated the pair. It included eyewitness descriptions of the gunmen that did not appear to describe Islam. The agency also withheld the relationship it had with a witness who testified against the duo: That person was also an FBI informant.

When the convictions were vacated last year, Vance apologized to Aziz and his family and to Islam's survivors.

Vanessa Potkin, the director of special litigation at the nonprofit Innocence Project, which contributed to the effort to vacate, said at the time that it took five decades of research and activism for "wrongful convictions to be officially acknowledged and rectified."

But she suggested the work had just begun in getting to the bottom of the government's possible culpability and alleged complicity in the matter. It "demands further inquiry," Potkin said.