NYC settles for $26 million with men falsely convicted of killing Malcolm X

New York City will pay $26 million to two men wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for the murder of civil rights icon Malcolm X, settling a federal lawsuit filed by the one living exoneree and the family of the other, who is deceased.

Muhammad Aziz, 84, and the family of the late Khalil Islam, who died in 2009, will each take home about $13 million nearly six decades after the Black Power icon was assassinated in Manhattan in 1965, the city’s Law Department confirmed to amNewYork Metro. The parties reached a settlement on Saturday, which was first reported by the New York Times. Both Aziz and Islam were formally exonerated of the crime last year following a conviction review by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.

“This settlement brings some measure of justice to individuals who spent decades in prison and bore the stigma of being falsely accused of murdering an iconic figure,” said Law Department spokesperson Nick Paolucci. “Based on our review, this office stands by the opinion of former Manhattan District Attorney Vance who stated, based on his investigation, that ‘there is one ultimate conclusion: Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were wrongfully convicted of this crime.’”

“No amount of money can rectify the injustice done to these innocent men and their families,” said David Shanies, the attorney representing Aziz and Islam’s estate, in a statement. “But the fast and considerable settlements we reached represent a recognition that we can and must do better at preventing and correcting wrongful convictions.”

Ameen and Shadid Johnson, sons of Khalil Islam, after their father’s exoneration in 2021.File Photo by Dean Moses

In Feb. 1965, Aziz and Islam were young members of the Nation of Islam. The Nation was at serious odds with former member Malcolm X, after his public break with the group and criticism of its leader Elijah Muhammad. On Feb. 21, Malcolm X was giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights when three men rushed the stage and opened fire. Malcolm X was hit 21 times and was pronounced dead that day.

One gunman, Mujahid Abdul Halim, was beaten and restrained by the crowd of bystanders outside the auditorium before being arrested. Witness descriptions of the other two killers led police to arrest Aziz and Islam for the crime within 10 days, despite no physical evidence linking them to the crime and both having solid alibis (Aziz, for one, had spent the morning at a Bronx hospital nursing his leg, which had been injured in a previous beating from police).

Halim confessed to the crime in a 1966 trial; he said that his two co-defendants Aziz and Islam were innocent, but would not name who actually did it. All three were convicted; Aziz and Islam were released in the 1980s while Halim was paroled in 2010.

In their $40 million suit filed in July, Aziz and the family of Islam accused the NYPD of “flagrant official misconduct” in the course of its investigation, which Vance had previously deemed “serious, unacceptable violations of the law and the public trust.” The re-investigation showed NYPD officers deliberately withheld exculpatory evidence and coerced witnesses into identifying Aziz and Islam as the assailants, according to the suit.

Malcolm X in 1964.Library of Congress

“Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam made attractive targets to the Case Detectives because both were known to the NYPD as Black men associated with the NOI; both were lieutenants in NOI Mosque No. 7; and both men were home, as opposed to at the mosque, at the time of the murder,” Aziz and Islam’s family wrote in the lawsuit.

In 1977, Halim submitted affidavits to the court expressing Aziz and Islam’s innocence, and pointed the finger instead at members of the Nation of Islam’s Newark mosque. These claims were explored further in a TV docuseries “Who Killed Malcolm X?”, which sowed enough doubt to spark the Manhattan DA’s re-investigation.

Correction: the Audubon Ballroom was located in Washington Heights, not Harlem as originally reported. The article has also been amended to include a statement from attorney David Shanies.