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2 men convicted of killing Malcolm X expected to be exonerated

Khalil Islam, who died in 2009, and Muhammad A. Aziz always maintained their innocence in the 1965 assassination of the civil rights activist.
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The convictions of two of the three men in the assassination of the civil rights activist Malcolm X are expected to be thrown out Thursday.

The men, Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam, always maintained their innocence in the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, who rose to become one of the most prominent leaders of the civil rights movement.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance and lawyers representing the two men first told The New York Times that they expected the men’s names to be cleared Thursday.

Muhammad A. Aziz, then known as Norman 3X Butler, left; and Khalil Islam, then known as Thomas 15X Johnson, in 1965.
Muhammad A. Aziz, then known as Norman 3X Butler, and Khalil Islam, then known as Thomas 15X Johnson, in 1965.AP

Vance and lawyers for the men confirmed to NBC News that they would "move to vacate the wrongful convictions of two individuals for the murder of Malcolm X" on Thursday afternoon.

Islam died in 2009; Aziz, who is in his 80s, continued to fight to clear his record. He and Islam’s estate are represented by the Innocence Project and 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," Aziz said Wednesday in a statement released by his lawyers.

“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 continued.

The development follows a 22-month investigation and decades of speculation that the case was mishandled from the start.

Malcolm X was assassinated 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 members of the political and religious group the Nation of Islam 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.

They were convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1966. 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.

A Netflix documentary series last year 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 an alibi. He had injured his leg and gone to a hospital only hours before the assassination. A doctor who treated him had taken the stand in his defense.

Malcolm X speaks at a rally on June 29, 1963.
Malcolm X speaks at a rally on June 29, 1963.Bettmann Archive

“The day of the murder, which was a Sunday morning, I was laying over the couch with my foot up and I heard it over the radio,” Aziz recalled in “Who Killed Malcolm X?"

Halim eventually revealed his co-conspirators in the assassination. In 1978, he identified four other men he said were involved. But a judge at the time rejected a motion to vacate Aziz's and Islam's convictions, the Innocence Project says.

“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," Aziz said in his statement. “However, I hope the same system that was responsible for this travesty of justice also take responsibility for the immeasurable harm it caused me.”