MANHATTAN, New York City (WABC) -- Two men who for decades steadfastly maintained their innocence in the 1965 assassination of civil rights icon Malcolm X were exonerated Thursday, after a nearly two-year-long re-investigation.
Muhammad Aziz, now 83 and previously known as Norman Butler, spent 22 years in prison before he was paroled in 1985.
"The events that led to my exoneration should never have occurred," he said. "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. 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. 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. However, I hope the same system that was responsible for this travesty of justice also take responsibility for the immeasurable harm it caused me."
A co-defendant who also maintained his innocence, Khalil Islam, died in 2009.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance moved to vacate the convictions based on "newly discovered evidence and the failure to disclose exculpatory evidence," according to a joint motion Vance's office filed with the defense.
"We are moving today to vacate the convictions and dismiss the indictments," Vance said. "I apologize for what were serious, unacceptable violations of law and the public trust."
Vance said that certain witnesses, acting under orders from then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, were ordered not to reveal they were FBI informants.
"Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were wrongly convicted of this crime," Vance said.
Aziz sat at the defense table wearing a white mask next to his attorney David Shanies, who called Aziz and Islam "innocent young black men" and accused the NYPD and the FBI of covering up evidence.
"Most of the men who murdered Malcolm X never faced justice," Shanies said.
The exoneration resulted from a nearly two year investigation by the district attorney's office and the Innocence Project, which uncovered FBI documents that revealed a description of the killers that did not match Aziz or Islam, an admission that the only witnesses who fingered Aziz and Islam were FBI informants, and a report that said sources reviewed photos of Islam and failed to place him in the Audubon Ballroom.
"In short, it is unknown whether the identification procedures used in this case were properly conducted," the motion to vacate said.
The district attorney's office stopped short of proclaiming the actual innocence of Aziz and Islam, citing the deaths of witnesses, co-conspirators and police officers, the missing identification, physical and other evidence.
Confessed assassin Thomas Hagan had long said neither man participated in killing Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on February 21, 1965, when the civil rights icon was gunned down as he began a speech.
Malcolm X gained national prominence as the voice of the Nation of Islam, exhorting Black people to claim their civil rights "by any means necessary." His autobiography, written with Alex Haley, remains a classic work of modern American literature.
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