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Two Men Convicted of Killing Malcolm X Will Be Exonerated After Decades

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Seth Wenig/AP/NPR
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Muhammad Aziz, center, stands outside the New York courthouse with members of his family on Thursday after his conviction was vacated in the 1965 killing of Malcolm X.

WBGO Journal host Doug Doyle chats with reporter Bob Hennelly about the latest in the Malcolm X murder case.

DOYLE: Earlier this month, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance asked a state court to exonerate two of the three men convicted decades ago for the murder in 1965 of civil rights visionary Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. In his remarks in court Vance apologized to the wrongfully convicted men and their families. He also referenced what he called “unacceptable violations of the law and the public trust” by both the FBI and the NYPD that were the cause for the miscarriage of justice over all these years.

With us now to discuss these significant developments is the Chief Leader’s City Hall reporter Bob Hennelly.

Thanks for joining us Bob.

So, Bob, this was decades ago, so please recap the circumstances of this case that goes back over half a century.

HENNELLY: On February 21, 1965, at around 3:00 p.m., Malcolm X was introduced to speak before an audience of hundreds at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem at an event sponsored by the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which Malcolm X led after he left the Nation of Islam.

As Malcolm X started to speak, there was a staged diversion with someone yelling about a fictitious pickpocketing attempt and then a smoke bomb was thrown into the crowd. Exploiting the chaos, a gunman armed with a sawed-off shotgun shot Malcolm X and he fell back. Two other gunmen quickly approached Malcolm X while he was on the ground and shot him repeatedly with handguns. One of the men who used a handgun in the attack, Mujahid Abdul Halim, was apprehended outside after he had been shot in the leg by one of Malcolm X’s personal security detail.

The two men that were just exonerated, Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam, who has since died, were taken into custody days later at their homes. In Vance’s latest filings, he suggests that the motivation for the civil rights leader was linked to his falling out with the leadership of the Nation of Islam.

Incredibly, Aziz and Islam where were still both convicted at trial despite the admission by Mujahid Abdul Halim at that same trial that neither man had anything to do with the murder. Moreover, he testified that there were three or four other men that part of the conspiracy, none of whom had been apprehended.

DOYLE: So, what new information prompted Vance to see these two men’s exoneration?

HENNELLY: Throughout Vance’s tenure, which is coming to its end, he has committed resources to explore instances of wrongful convictions that were often driven by everything from race-based profiling to out and out prosecutorial misconduct that can cross the line into being criminal. In court Vance told the judge that his office and defense counsel had obtained dozens and dozens of reports, from the FBI and the NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations. “These records include FBI reports of witnesses who failed to identify Mr. Islam and who implicated other suspects. And, significantly, we now have reports revealing that, on orders from Director J. Edgar Hoover himself, the FBI ordered multiple witnesses not to tell police or prosecutors that they were, in fact, FBI informants.”

In addition, undercover NYPD officers were also present at the scene.

Basically, at the very least the FBI leadership felt it was more critical that the agency preserve its covert network of informants than that Aziz and Islam get a fair trial. Now, Vance says so much time has passed and so many of the witnesses have died that there can be no retrial on any of the charges.

DOYLE: Bob, it’s sad to say this but it seems there’s not a week that goes by where somewhere in the country prosecutors aren’t making similar admissions in court regarding a wrongful conviction involving a person of color. What makes this different?

HENNELLY: Well, what’s not mentioned in the latest filing, is that all throughout this period the FBI was operating something called COINTELPRO, a national strategy to use dirty trick and extra-legal methods to discredit and neutralize anyone that J. Edgar Hoover was a threat to national security. In that broad swath of suspects were included the Black Panthers, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X and many, many others. It was only with the convening of the Church Committee hearings in the 1970s that we got a window into this shameful chapter of American history.

DOYLE: You mentioned that there’s a New Jersey angle to the Malcolm X story. How did New Jersey play into this 60s’s narrative?

HENNELLY: Where to start. In the summer of 1964 when Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party came to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City President Johnson directed J. Edgar Hoover to conduct covert surveillance of her and her fellow activists’ activities. The FBI was conducting illegal wiretaps on Dr. King. Hamer was a featured speaker at speaking engagements with Malcolm X in the months that followed. Perhaps, of greatest concern to Hoover, was that these crowds were growing and increasingly included white people. Of course, the mosques in Newark, Paterson and Jersey City figure prominently in the Malcolm X case. It would fascinating to find out what files the New Jersey State Police might have in the case. In the latest Malcom X filings, DA Vance has evidence that the NYPD worked very closely with the FBI. It would be worthwhile to know if that was the case on this side of the Hudson.

Doug Doyle has been News Director at WBGO since 1998 and has taken his department to new heights in coverage and recognition. Doug and his staff have received more than 200 awards from organizations like PRNDI, AP, New York Association of Black Journalists, Garden State Association of Black Journalists and the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.