Two Convictions Vacated in the Murder of Malcolm X

The convictions of two men found guilty in the killing of Malcolm X were vacated Thursday afternoon. Muhammad Abdul Aziz, 83, and Khalil Islam, who died in 2009 at 74, were convicted in 1966 alongside a third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office asked to vacate the convictions after a 22-month review of the case found that the Manhattan district attorney’s office, the New York Police Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation all withheld evidence in favor of acquittal. Malcolm X was killed during a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan on February 21, 1965. Halim was arrested in the ballroom, but Aziz and Islam were arrested days later.

Halim confessed to the murder at trial and testified that Aziz and Islam were not involved. Aziz and Islam maintained their innocence and no physical evidence linked them to the crime.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. undertook the review of the case after meeting with Aziz and his lawyers from the Innocence Project and the Shanies Law Office. The reinvestigation found that the FBI withheld documents identifying other suspects and a living witness who could support Aziz’s alibi. According to the reinvestigation, prosecutors knew that undercover officers were in the ballroom when the shooting occurred, but never disclosed that fact to the defense. There was also evidence that someone had called a reporter earlier that day to say that Malcolm X would be killed, but the police never disclosed that information. Further, there were no records of the procedures police had used in identifying Aziz and Islam, eyewitness testimony gave inconsistent and conflicting accounts, and key evidence was missing.

At the time of the assassination, Aziz and Islam, formerly known as Norman Butler and Thomas Johnson, were identified as Nation of Islam enforcers by the police. The two worked at the Harlem mosque led by Malcolm X until his falling out with the sect’s leader, Elijah Muhammad. They were lieutenants in the Nation of Islam’s militia and had been charged with beating and shooting a defector, Benjamin Brown, who had established a mosque in the Bronx. The charges were eventually dropped. 

Aziz and Islam spent a combined 42 years in prison. Aziz was released in 1985, while Islam was released in 1987.

Outside of the courtroom before the hearing, one of Islam’s sons, Ameen Johnson, gave a brief interview in which he said, “I honestly didn’t think that I was going to live to see the day.”

Additional Reading

Judge tosses convictions of 2 men in killing of Malcolm X, AP News (November 18, 2021)

Convictions of 2 men for murdering Malcolm X will likely be tossed, ABA Journal (November 17, 2021)

Live Updates: D.A. Will Ask Judge to Vacate 2 Convictions in Malcolm X Murder, The New York Times (November 18, 2021)

Image Credit: Daniel M. Silva /