Historic and Long Overdue Exonerations of Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam for the 1965 Assassination of Malcolm X
Justice for two innocent men who were wrongly convicted 55 years ago and spent a combined 42 years in prison.
By Innocence Staff
Muhammad Aziz in a Manhattan courtroom on Nov. 18, 2021, with his Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin (Image: Jeenah Moon for the Innocence Project)
Compelling evidence of innocence known to the FBI and NYPD was hidden from the defense at trial and only recently revealed through a reinvestigation of the case
NEW YORK – Nov. 18, 2021 – David B. Shanies Law Office (or “Shanies Law”) and the Innocence Project proudly announced today the long overdue exonerations for Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam, two innocent men wrongly convicted 55 years ago for the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X.
With the agreement of the New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Shanies Law and the Innocence Project joined in a motion today to vacate the 1966 convictions of Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam, which was granted by the Honorable Ellen N. Biben, Administrative Judge for the New York County Supreme Court, Criminal Term. The joint motion was the culmination of a collaborative reinvestigation of the case, which began in January 2020 and unearthed new evidence of Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam’s innocence, including FBI documents that had been available at the time of trial but were withheld from both the defense and prosecution.
“Today marks a significant and long overdue milestone for Muhammad Aziz and the memory of Khalil Islam” said David B. Shanies. “These innocent men experienced the agony of decades in prison for a crime they did not commit. They were robbed of their freedom in the prime of their lives and branded the killers of a towering civil rights leader. Muhammad is now 83, and Khalil passed away years ago without ever having had the chance to see his name cleared. They, their families, and their communities have endured decades of unspeakable pain and suffering. The tragic and unjust events of the past can never be erased but exonerating these men is a righteous and well-deserved affirmation of their true character. We are grateful to the New York County District Attorney’s Office for its collaboration, transparency, and fairness during the past two years that led to this exoneration
What was widely known 55 years ago is now being formally acknowledged: that Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam are innocent, and that they should have never been arrested, charged, or convicted for a murder they did not commit,” said Deborah Francois, an attorney with Shanies Law. “Muhammad’s and Khalil’s convictions were the product of gross official misconduct and a criminal justice system weighed against people of color. Their exoneration was decades in the making and is proof that we need—and are able—to do better.”
“The assassination of Malcolm X was a historic event that demanded a scrupulous investigation and prosecution but, instead, produced one of the most blatant miscarriages of justice that I have ever seen.”
Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project and Special Counsel, stated, “The assassination of Malcolm X was a historic event that demanded a scrupulous investigation and prosecution but, instead, produced one of the most blatant miscarriages of justice that I have ever seen. Officially correcting the false historical narrative around one of the most significant events in 20th century US history allows us to learn from and prevent future miscarriages of justice. Indeed, as George Orwell once said: he who controls the past controls the future. Nowhere is that seen more clearly than in this case.”
Vanessa Potkin, director of Special Litigation at the Innocence Project added, “It took five decades of unprecedented work by scholars and activists and the creation of a Conviction Integrity Program at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office willing to engage in a true joint re-investigation for these wrongful convictions to be officially acknowledged and rectified. The recently unearthed evidence of Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam’s innocence that had been hidden by the NYPD and FBI not only invalidates their convictions, – it also highlights the many unanswered questions about the government’s complicity in the assassination – a separate and important issue that, itself, demands further inquiry.”
The Innocence Project and Shanies Law acknowledge in particular the extraordinary efforts of Charles King, Deputy Chief of the Conviction Integrity Program, and Senior Trial Counsel Peter Casolaro, who worked previously on the case of the Exonerated Five. Together with the New York County District Attorney’s office, they led a cooperative and transparent conviction review process that made this achievement possible.
History of the Case and Previous Attempts to Exonerate the Innocent Men
On February 21, 1965, at an event in the Audubon Ballroom in New York, a group of men ambushed Malcolm X as he began speaking to the audience and fatally shot him. Mujahid Abdul Halim, then known as Talmadge Hayer, was captured at the scene and arrested by the New York City Police Department (“NYPD”). Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were arrested at their homes several days later and charged with the murder of Malcolm X, along with Mr. Halim. In the aftermath of the tragic incident, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) became involved immediately and worked closely with the NYPD and DANY during the investigation and prosecution of the case.
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