New York City pays $26 million to men falsely convicted of killing Malcolm X

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Alex Muniz, Staff Writer

New York City has agreed to pay $26 million to the families of two men wrongfully accused of killing civil rights leader Malcolm X. Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam were convicted of the execution of Malcolm X in 1966 and served over 20 years in prison. Aziz was released on parole in 1985, and Islam was released in 1987 before passing away in 2009.

During their incarceration, both men insisted on their innocence, only to be found not guilty over 50 years later through an in-depth investigation of the 1966 trial. At the time of their incarceration, Aziz was 26 years old with six children and Islam was 30 years old and had three children. Aziz was 83 years old when his name was exonerated. A lawyer for the two men, Nick Paolucci, stated the settlement would be divided evenly between Aziz and the family of the late Islam.

On Feb. 21, 1965, Malcolm X was shot and killed by three gunmen while addressing the Organization of Afro-American Unity in the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. His pregnant wife Betty Shabazz witnessed his execution, along with hundreds of people in the crowd and took cover while sitting in front-row seats with her six children. The three gunmen charged with the murder were Aziz, Islam and Mujahid Abdul Halim. Each was once a member of the Nation of Islam, a Black nationalist organization, the same community Malcolm X split from in 1963. 

During their trial, Halim confessed to the murder and stated that Aziz and Islam were both innocent but did not reveal the identities of the two other assailants in the murder. Despite this confession, all three men were convicted of the murder and given indeterminate life sentences in March 1966. In 1977 and 1978, however, Halim signed two affidavits, named the Hayer affidavits, restating Aziz’s and Halim’s involvement with the shooting and named four Nation of Islam members as involved in the planning and execution of Malcolm X instead. Despite this, Aziz and Islam remained incarcerated for over 20 years, with Aziz being on parole for an additional 35 years. Halim spent nearly 45 years in prison, being released in April 2010 and remains on parole to this day.

On Feb. 7, 2020, Netflix released a six-part series titled “Who Killed Malcolm X,” which sparked new debate and evidence relating to the false convictions of Aziz and Islam. Following the documentary, New York District attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. met with Aziz’s attorney David Shanies and officials at the Innocence Project with plans to reopen the initial 1966 case. The investigation lasted for 22 months, with officials discovering crucial documents that were available at the time of the murder trial kept by the FBI and NYPD, which would have likely led to Aziz’s and Islam’s declaration of innocence decades earlier.

The investigation also found the case had no physical evidence and that both men had alibis. While showing explicit proof that they were not involved in the shooting, the investigation did not propose an alternate explanation for the assassination and did not name any other suspected assailants. After his exoneration, Aziz filed a $40 million dollar lawsuit against New York City for misconduct and damages in July 2022, and in October, New York appealed and agreed to pay $26 million dollars to both men.

Since the exoneration and appeal, officials from the Innocence Project have weighed in on the aftermath of the long investigation and trials. Vanessa Potkin, Director of Special Litigation, stated “It took five decades of unprecedented work by scholars and activists and the creation of a prosecutor’s office willing to engage in a true joint re-investigation for the truth to be acknowledged and these wrongful convictions to be officially rectified. We applaud New York City for taking this additional important step to address this far-reaching wrong.”

Stefan Mooklal, Deputy Chief of Staff for New York City’s law department, also shared in a statement, “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.”

Aziz issued a statement before a judge at his exoneration hearing and 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 and officially recognized.”

Since the announcement, University students have shared their responses to the New York Justice system. A Junior Criminal Justice major expressed the importance of dedication to fairly investigating trials. “It’s so important to accurately review the evidence gathered for an investigation. There are still so many cases that have led to innocent people [being] incarcerated which needs the same dedication to justice as this trial has shown.” 

Though this case is an example of a time when a wrongly convicted individual was exonerated, there are many cases where people are wrongly imprisoned and receive no second investigation. The freedom of Aziz and Islam marks an important step for the American criminal justice system yet brings attention to its faults at the same time.