NEW YORK, Nov 18 (Reuters) – Two men who spent decades in prison for the murder of Black activist and civil rights advocate Malcolm X in 1965 were exonerated on Thursday after the Manhattan district attorney apologized for what he called “violations of the law and the public trust.”
Applause broke out in the courtroom as New York State Supreme Court Justice Ellen Biben vacated the convictions against Muhammad Aziz, 83, and Khalil Islam, who died in 2009. Both were released from prison on parole in the 1980s.
Aziz told the court that his wrongful conviction had stemmed from “a process that was corrupt to its core, one that is all too familiar to Black people in 2021,” and said he hoped the system would take “responsibility for the immeasurable harm it caused me.”
Two of Islam’s sons who were also present in court, Ameen and Shahid Johnson, told reporters outside the courthouse that they felt “bittersweet” about the exoneration because it could not replace everything their family had lost.
Ameen was 1-1/2-years old and their mother was pregnant with Shahid when Islam, who was formerly known as Thomas Johnson, was arrested. The exoneration was a “very, very long time coming,” Ameen Johnson told Reuters earlier while waiting to enter the courtroom. “I honestly didn’t think I’d live to see the day.”
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in court that new exculpatory evidence uncovered during a two-year-long investigation had made it clear that Aziz and Islam were wrongfully convicted for murdering Malcolm X.
Investigators withheld from both defense and prosecution “dozens and dozens” of documents from the New York Police Department and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, including reports that implicated other suspects, according to Vance.
The conviction of a third man for murdering Malcolm X still stands.
He was shot dead at New York City’s Audubon Ballroom while preparing to deliver a speech. All three of the men convicted were members of the Nation of Islam.
Before tossing the convictions on Thursday, Biben said she regretted the court could not give Aziz and Islam back the years they had lost.
Islam’s family and Aziz could each reasonably seek $1 million in restitution for each year they spent in prison, according to New York-based civil rights lawyer Richard Emery, who has represented wrongfully convicted people.
Emery said there were two ways to seek restitution: suing the state for unjust conviction, and filing a federal civil rights case against the law enforcement agencies involved.
Still, there’s “no hard and fast formula” for such settlements, according to Zachary Carter, who represented New York City in its $41 million settlement with five men wrongfully convicted of the 1989 rape of a woman jogger in Central Park.
If Islam’s family and Aziz seek settlements, their lawyers likely will also point to the damage their reputations suffered from the wrongful convictions, according to Carter.
Aziz and Islam suffered the “ignominy” of being viewed as assassins of a beloved figure in the U.S. civil rights struggle, Carter said. “What should be the compensation for having been a pariah in your community for so many years?”
One of Malcolm X’s daughters, Ilyasah Shabazz, said in a statement on Thursday that she hoped the “long overdue” exonerations would bring some peace to Aziz, his family, and Islam’s family. But Shabazz said her family still wants to know the full truth behind her father’s murder.
“Full justice will not be served until all parties involved in the orchestrated killing of our father are identified and brought to justice,” she said.