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It’s a good day when justice is served, even if the order has been delayed for decades. It was a good day when Byron De La Beckwith was finally run to ground in a Mississippi courtroom in 1994 for the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963. It was a good day when U.S. Attorney Doug Jones finally got full justice for four little girls killed in a Birmingham church by putting away the last two murderous plotters almost 40 years later. And Wednesday was a good day because Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance and a couple of indefatigable defense lawyers manage to right a historic wrong that occurred in 1965 at a place called the Audubon ballroom in New York. From the New York Times:
The exoneration of the two men, Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam, represents a remarkable acknowledgment of grave errors made in a case of towering importance: the 1965 murder of one of America’s most influential Black leaders in the fight against racism. A 22-month investigation conducted jointly by the Manhattan district attorney’s office and lawyers for the two men found that prosecutors and two of the nation’s premier law enforcement agencies — the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York Police Department — had withheld key evidence that, had it been turned over, would likely have led to the men’s acquittal.
I seem to recall that at the time, the country was very ambivalent about this particular political assassination. The murder of Malcolm X did not prompt the kind of general outpouring of emotions that would accompany the murders of John and Robert Kennedy, or Dr. Martin Luther King, which bookended this killing in the 1960s. Malcolm X’s fascinating spiritual and political journey was a mystery to almost all white people of the time because his early rhetoric—“by any means necessary”—was so contrary to that of the civil rights leaders with whom the country had become accustomed. And his murder was entangled in the internal politics of the Nation of Islam, an organization which most white Americans felt was somewhere between a liberation army and an expedition from Mars. Except for friends and allies of Malcolm, nobody paid attention to the maneuvering behind the scenes that led to the conviction of two innocent men.
A trove of F.B.I. documents included information that implicated other suspects and pointed away from Mr. Islam and Mr. Aziz. Prosecutors’ notes indicate they failed to disclose the presence of undercover officers in the ballroom at the time of the shooting. And Police Department files revealed that a reporter for The New York Daily News received a call the morning of the shooting indicating that Malcolm X would be murdered.
Altogether, the re-investigation found that had the new evidence been presented to a jury, it may well have led to acquittals. And Mr. Aziz, 83, who was released in 1985, and Mr. Islam, who was released in 1987 and died in 2009, would not have been compelled to spend decades fighting to clear their names. “This wasn’t a mere oversight,” said Deborah Francois, a lawyer for the men. “This was a product of extreme and gross official misconduct.”
The reinvestigation of the crime was prompted by a project on Netflix that pointed the finger away from the two men and toward a member of the Newark chapter of the Nation of Islam named William Bradley. Both the men convicted in the crime had presented solid alibis at trial.
Mr. Bradley was an enforcer for the Nation of Islam, which Malcolm X had joined in 1952 and promoted unceasingly for a dozen years before an acrimonious break the year before the assassination. He was less than six feet tall, weighed 182 pounds and was dark-skinned. He had been a machine-gunner in the Marine Corps and his criminal history included a charge of possessing an illegal weapon.
The description of Mr. Bradley was in F.B.I. files at the time, and Mr. Halim even identified him as one of the assassins. And the authorities were aware that the Nation of Islam was targeting Malcolm X; a week before the assassination, his house was firebombed while he slept inside with his wife and daughters.
(Bradley is deceased and his lawyer has denied Bradley had any involvement in the crime.)
When Spike Lee released his Malcolm X biopic in 1992, the process of rehabilitating Malcolm’s historical image, and introducing him to many people for the first time, began in earnest. Now, 29 years after the release of the movie, there has been justice done for two innocent men who were accused of his murder. The crime is still not solved, but the injustice has been remedied. And that is a lot more than nothing.
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