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2 men convicted of killing Malcolm X more than 5 decades ago have been exonerated

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In 1966, three men were convicted of the murder of civil rights leader Malcolm X. Two of them, Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam, insisted throughout the years that they were innocent. Well, today, more than a half-century later, these two men have been exonerated. Their lawyers called their convictions, quote, "a serious and unacceptable violation of the law." NPR's Jasmine Garsd is in Manhattan and joins us now from outside the courthouse. Hi, Jasmine.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: So what was it like in that courtroom today when they read out loud this exoneration?

GARSD: It was bittersweet. Although there were several official apologies, a reserved and very dignified Muhammad Aziz testified briefly, saying he doesn't need a court to tell him he's innocent. He did say it is important that his name be cleared. And later outside the courtroom, I had a chance to speak to Khalil Islam's sons. Islam passed away years ago. And they were quite emotional. They spoke about having to live with the stigma of having a father who was accused of murdering civil rights leader Malcolm X. Here's Shahid Johnson.

SHAHID JOHNSON: For me, I kept a secret identity. I had to pretend like I was - you know, there was no sharing of who my father was at all. You know, I never discussed it. I have friends today, they're looking at me, and they're in shock.

CHANG: Well, these two men, as we said, they were convicted more than 50 years ago. They pleaded their case that entire time. Why was all of this revisited now after all these years?

GARSD: Right. From the moment they were convicted, there were doubts from historians and activists about the culpability of Islam and Aziz. This entire time, they said they were innocent. In fact, a third man who was also found guilty at the time, he said Islam and Aziz did not do it. There was no physical evidence that tied either man to the crime scene, let alone the murder. Both men offered credible alibis. Witnesses contradicted each other. So the Manhattan DA had agreed to look at this case again. And then a recent Netflix documentary really got people talking about it.

CHANG: OK, so what did the new investigation find?

GARSD: It was a 22-month-long investigation conducted by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, lawyers for the two men and the nonprofit The Innocence Project. What they say they found was that back in 1965, both the FBI and the NYPD withheld key evidence that would likely have led to Aziz and Islam's acquittal. We're talking about FBI documents that implicated other suspects and pointed away from Islam and Aziz. Failure to disclose NYPD files, which revealed that there was undercover law enforcement at the event where Malcolm X was killed. And there were clear indications that he was in danger. But perhaps the biggest revelation of this afternoon was that J. Edgar Hoover himself withheld information that many of the witnesses involved in the Malcolm X assassination trial were actually FBI informants.

CHANG: Wow. Fascinating. Well, now that Aziz and Islam are exonerated, I mean, does that mean we're any closer to knowing who actually killed Malcolm X?

GARSD: No. Throughout the years, historians have pointed to another member of the Nation of Islam who never got arrested. In a way, this exoneration is an answer that opens the door to a lot more questions.

CHANG: That is NPR's Jasmine Garsd, who joined us in Manhattan. Thank you, Jasmine.

GARSD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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