The recent exoneration of 83-year-old Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam for the 1965 assassination of human rights icon Malcolm X is a 55 year long-delayed judicial affirmation of their innocence. Formerly known as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, Aziz and Islam were members of the Nation of Islam and, like many in the organization, wanted to see Malcolm X dead because of their insistence that he had betrayed the trust of Elijah Muhammad. But they were innocent of the murder, and the exoneration came after the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and lawyers for the defendants engaged in a 22-month investigation to review evidence in the case.
The reinvestigation of the men’s convictions was predicated on previously withheld evidence pointing to their innocence. The legal efforts to exonerate the two men were bolstered by the tireless efforts of historians, researchers, lawyers, and those who knew the two men who were tenacious in maintaining their innocence for more than five decades. The pressure to reopen the investigation reached a crescendo after the airing of the highly acclaimed Emmy-nominated Netflix documentary Who Killed Malcolm X in February 2020. Decades-long exhaustive research and exclusive interviews by historian and longtime Malcolm X admirer Abdur Rahman Muhammad provided the impetus for the documentary. The film revealed the roles played by the New York City Police Department, the FBI, and the Nation of Islam in facilitating the killing of Malcolm X and the perpetuation of the false narrative about the tragic event.
I first met Abdur Rahman Muhammad one evening decades ago in Washington, D.C. on Georgia Avenue NW in front of the ever-popular Pyramid Bookstore. He was a new convert to Islam at the time and was engaged in a heated exchange with 3 or 4 Nation of Islam members about their unorthodox beliefs. My instinct was to try to diffuse the situation by extracting the fiery Abdur Rahman from that space before something bad happened. He is not a neophyte to Malcolm research. I believe his research about Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam began sometime around this event a few decades ago.
Prosecutorial and Law Enforcement Misconduct
Many past and present social justice figures, politicians, and community leaders and influencers have been victims of prosecutorial and law enforcement misconduct. These manufactured convictions have had the effect of undermining respect of, and confidence in, the judicial system. This system has been proved to be fundamentally flawed because of structural racism as well as inequitable dispensation of justice based on the financial capacity of defendants to “purchase” justice. There have been more than 2,500 known exonerations in the United States since 1989. At least 190 individuals formerly on death row have been exonerated. If the recent exoneration of two men who served two decades in prison for assassinating Malcolm X teaches us anything, it should be that not everyone convicted in U.S. courts is necessarily guilty of a crime. A good example is the case of Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. Like other political prisoners in the U.S., he is a victim of slow death by medical neglect. He was convicted of murdering a Cobb County deputy sheriff in 2002 and wounding a second deputy even though his supporters’ and defense attorneys’ belief is that the evidence was illegitimate. Before the conclusion of Al-Amin’s trial, another man, Otis Jackson, confessed to the shooting. The shooting victims both testified (the deputy who died described the assailant before his death) that the shooter was 5 feet 8 inches tall with gray eyes. Imam Jamil is 6 feet 5 inches with brown eyes. Otis Jackson fits the description given by the officers.
The Brazen Killing of Malcolm X
The assassination of Malcolm X in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom was brazenly carried out by a team of Nation of Islam assassins in a crowded hall of 400 people. Present were individuals curious about Malcolm X’s post-NOI direction and there were his ardent supporters as well, including his wife Betty Shabazz and four of their young daughters. The assassins made no attempt to disguise their identities or devise an elaborate escape plan. They correctly surmised that the shock effect of their bold actions would so terrorize potential witnesses that few, if any, would provide positive identification of the murderers. Thomas Hagan, also known at the time of the assassination as Talmadge X Hayer and currently going by Mujahid Abdul Halim, was captured by some of Malcolm’s followers, brutally beaten, and shot in the leg as he attempted to escape the Ballroom.
Thomas Hagan was arrested on the scene that fateful day by New York City police officers and charged with the murder of Malcolm X, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. Two days later, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson were arrested and charged with Malcolm’s assassination. During his 1966 trial, Hagan informed the court that neither Norman 3X Butler nor Thomas 15X Johnson participated in the assassination. The court rejected consideration of this newly revealed information, resulting in all three of the accused being found guilty and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
Hagan initially denied his involvement, but during the trial confessed to the crime. At the time, Hagan did not disclose the identities of his accomplishes. In 1977, when Butler and Johnson unsuccessfully appealed their convictions, Hagan submitted sworn affidavits once again denying Butler’s and Johnson’s participation in the assassination and disclosing the names of four of his actual partners in Malcolm’s assassination. The names provided to the court by Hagan were Ben X Thomas (aka Ben Thompson), Leon X Davis, William X, and Wilbur X, all members of Newark’s Temple No. 25. The full names of the killers were Benjamin Thomas, Leon Davis, William Bradley, and Wilbur Mckinley. The four hitmen were never charged with the murder of Malcolm X. William Bradley, who was identified as the man sitting in the front row during those fateful moments of Malcolm’s assassination, sprang from his seat and with one shotgun blast to the left side of the chest of the fallen martyr, ended the life of one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.
Bradley was a career criminal after Malcolm’s murder, committing robberies, aggravated assault, and drug offenses. Changing his name to Al-Mustafa Shabazz, he married a prominent political activist in Newark, New Jersey. He curiously even appeared in a political advertisement in Newark for then mayoral candidate Corey Booker. The ad was pulled after a New York Times article exposed Shabazz’s likely connection to the murder of Malcolm X. The other three alleged unindicted murderers all lived their lives virtually hiding in plain sight.
Many Knew the Identities of the Murderers
In 1978, I was assigned to work in Southern Alabama on union organizing campaigns. One of my union co-workers was the sister of former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier. Over meals, the organizers would mostly discuss campaign strategies and politics. Frazier’s sister was amused that I was naïve enough at the time to believe that Thomas 15X Johnson and Norman 3X Butler were the assassins of Malcolm X. She would laugh and say that every fool knew that two of the actual murderers lived in her adopted home of Patterson, New Jersey and that she knew the names of the other two and how they got their “daily bread.” As my fascination with Malcolm grew over the years, I met and developed different levels of friendships with several of his close associates from the NOI, Muslim Mosque, Inc, and Organization of Afro-American Unity, including Dr. Betty Shabazz.
Among those willing to discuss the issue, there was unanimity of opinion that Butler and Johnson were not part of the team of assassins who killed Malcolm X. In 1975, I gave a lecture on Islam to a large gathering of inmates at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. I was amazed when one of the brothers informed me that one of the convicted killers of Malcolm X, Mujahid Abdul Halim, was in the audience and had been temporarily transferred for either medical treatment or protective custody. I had no desire to meet him.
Mujahid Abdul Halim was paroled from New York state prison in 1985. Muhammad Abdul Aziz was also paroled in 1985. Khalil Islam was released from prison in 1987 and died in 2009. According to the meticulous research in the 1992 book The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X by Karl Evanzz, Malcolm told his confidante and supporter James Shabazz on February 16, 1965, that, “I have the names of five Black Muslims assigned to kill me. I will announce them at the meeting [February 21, 1965].” Malcolm did not live long enough to reveal the names of his suspected killers. Eyewitnesses reported that Betty Shabazz took a blood-soaked piece of paper believed to be the list containing those names from her husband’s coat pocket as he lay on the stage of the Audubon. Before his martyrdom, Malcolm also expressed to his close associates that he was going to stop saying that it was the Nation of Islam that was trying to kill him. He knew they did not have the reach to try to poison him in the Cairo Hilton Hotel restaurant or to influence the French government to forbid his deplaning in France on his final overseas trip mere weeks before his assassination. So, others, more powerful, were also intending to take him out.
There is a hadith that states when Allah SWT loves someone, He declares that love to angels who announce that love throughout the heavens. Allah SWT then places the love of that person in the hearts of humans so that he or she is loved on earth. Malik Shabazz, Malcolm X, has been a beloved figure worldwide for over half a century. His life lessons and prescriptions for the establishment of social justice movements have transcended the boundaries of his generation, race, nationality, and political beliefs. Although he was only 39 years old and had been a practitioner of mainstream Sunni Islam for just 11 months before he died, Malcolm X has influenced millions worldwide to embrace Islam. It seems ironic that 55 years after his martyrdom that a documentary streaming on Netflix, and the exoneration of two people falsely convicted of his murder, would ignite for another generation a newly found interest in America’s Muslim martyr.
A Larger Perspective on the Exonerations
The exoneration of Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam for the assassination of Malcolm X is a long-overdue remedy for the gross miscarriage of justice committed against them. Yet, the national and international publicity that highlighted their two decades of false imprisonment and excruciating 55-year delay before being cleared of all charges can never remedy the hardship and pain suffered by the two men and their family members. Nor is it likely that other victims of prosecutorial and law enforcement misconduct who are currently languishing in prisons today will directly benefit from this high-profile exoneration. The United States is a carceral nation that has intertwined racial capitalism [“the process of deriving social and economic value from the racial identity of another person” (Leong)] and structural racism. Thus, the U.S. has the largest prison population of any country, with currently 2.1 million citizens incarcerated, according to the Pew Research Center. According to The Color of Justice Sentencing Project statistics, African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate of five times that of Whites, the most disproportionate representation of a single racial or ethnic group anywhere on earth. The U.S. also has the largest number of for-profit privately-owned prisons in any country.
Nationally, one in 81 African American adults in the U.S. is serving time in prison. Since exonerations are granted on the state level, it is highly improbable that states will be motivated to accelerate their own pace of evidentiary review of convictions because of New York state murder convictions from half a century ago that ultimately were vacated and the convicted men exonerated. The efforts of groups like the Innocence Project to investigate dubious felony murder conviction cases are meritorious and valuable. However, a simultaneous movement to overhaul the criminal justice system is essential to minimize, with the ultimate objective of eliminating, convictions based on random arrests, witness tampering and coercion, and exclusion of African Americans and Latinos from jury pools. Nonetheless, the exoneration of Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam and the resultant correction of the historical record involving the assassination of Malcolm X, Malik Shabazz, cannot be overstated.
For additional information, the following books are recommended:
The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley
The Judas Factor: The Assassination of Malcolm X, by Karl Evanzz
The Dead Are Arising, The Life of Malcolm X, by Les Payne and Kamara Payne
On The Side of My People: A Religious Life of Malcolm X, by Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.