NEW YORK — A Black man finally exonerated in the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X stood inside a Manhattan courtroom Thursday to hear an apologetic judge finally clear his name.
Muhammad Aziz addressed the court after prosecutors released a detailed and damning court filing exposing the decades-old federal and New York Police Department misconduct that helped put two innocent Black men behind bars in the cold-blooded execution of the Muslim leader.
“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,” declared Aziz, whose co-defendant died in 2009.
“While I do not need this court, these 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.”
The pair were tried and convicted by the Manhattan district attorney in a trial rife with misconduct and misdirection. Despite his ultimate acquittal, Aziz said little had changed over the ensuing decades.
“The events that brought us to court today should never have occurred,” he said. “Those events were and are the result of a process that was corrupt in this court, one that is all too familiar to Black people in 2021.”
The 43-page document made public by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. recounted a litany of errors in the prosecution: A lack of forensic evidence linking the two to the Audubon Ballroom slaying. The withholding of information by the NYPD and FBI. Sketchy police lineups — and the decision to keep three undercover cops at the scene on Feb. 21, 1965, from testifying at trial.
“The prosecutors were not in possession or aware of the information gathered by the NYPD and the FBI which we found exculpatory,” the report declared. “The FBI and NYPD files do not indicate that the information was ever disclosed to prosecutors.
“To the contrary, there are indications in the FBI file that information was deliberately withheld.”
The findings came more than three decades after wrongly convicted Aziz and Khalil Islam were finally released from prison following a 1966 trial where the FBI, the NYPD and prosecutors withheld evidence likely to convince a jury of their innocence, officials said.
Unredacted FBI documents viewed by the investigators showed the agency insisted its files at the time contained “no original information developed by (the feds),” the report said, adding that a detailed description of two suspects contained elsewhere in the report clearly did not match Islam.
NYPD documents supporting the innocence of the two men were not in the documents shared with prosecutors, the report said.
Malcolm X, only 39, was shot 16 times in the wild assassination before a crowd of 400 people, including his pregnant wife and three of their daughters. One of the killers blasted the victim from close range with a shotgun.
“No physical evidence tied Aziz or Islam to the murder or the crime,” the report read. “There was no evidence that Aziz or Islam had any connection to (co-defendant Mujahid Abdul) Halim. Again, the people’s case against Aziz and Islam rested entirely on eyewitness testimony.”
Halim in fact acknowledged to his co-defendants when they were behind bars during the trial that both were innocent.
In one incident, police arranged for a eyewitness to view a second, smaller lineup after he initially looked at a group of different sized and complexions. After the witness mentioned the shooters wore gray coats, he was shown a second lineup with just two men wearing gray coats — one of them Aziz.
Vance, joined by attorneys for the two suspects, conducted a painstaking 22-month investigation that cleared both men in the stunning execution. Aziz spent 19 years behind bars while co-defendant Islam served 21 years and passed away in 2009.
Defense witnesses at the trial testified both men were at home on the day of the murder, as did the defendants, and there was no physical evidence linking either man to the slaying, the report noted.
The report also detailed how a New York Daily News reporter received an anonymous call on the morning of Feb. 21, 1965, with a familiar voice from prior calls announcing Malcolm X, Sen. Robert Kennedy, Mayor Robert Wagner and Councilman Robert Lowe would all be murdered.
After Malcolm X was killed, the reporter contacted police.