Muhammad A. Aziz was one of two wrongly convicted men for the murder of Malcolm X. He said that the decision to overturn the verdict against him 56-years after the assassination would not erase the decades he had lost.
“I do not need this court, these prosecutors or a piece of paper to tell me I am innocent,” said Mr. Aziz, who was released from prison in 1985. “I am an 83-year-old who was victimized by the criminal justice system.”
He added: “I hope the same system that was responsible for this travesty of justice also takes responsibility for the immeasurable harm caused to me,” noting that his wrongful conviction should have never taken place and was part of a broader trend “that is all too familiar to Black people.”
Thursday’s hearing came after a 22-month review of the convictions of two men, Mr. Aziz and Khalil Islam, in the 1965 murder of the civil rights leader. The review, jointly conducted by the district attorney’s office and lawyers for the men, concluded what historians and scholars had long argued: that the case against them was dubious from the start, based on conflicting witness testimony and no physical evidence.
“I regret that this court cannot fully undo the serious miscarriages of injustice in this case and give you back the many years that you lost,” said Ellen N. Biben, the State Supreme Court judge in Manhattan who presided over the hearing. The courtroom burst into applause as she granted the motion to overturn the convictions.
The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., apologized on behalf of some of the nation’s most prominent law enforcement agencies before the judge’s momentous decision, which officially rewrites the narrative of one of the most painful moments of the civil rights era. He had submitted a 43-page motion written with the men’s lawyers asking that the convictions be vacated.
“I want to begin by saying directly to Mr. Aziz and his family, and the family of Mr. Islam, and of Malcolm X that I apologize,” Mr. Vance said as the hearing began on Thursday. “We can’t restore what was taken from these men and their families, but by correcting the record, perhaps we can begin to restore that faith.”
Mr. Islam spent more than 20 years in prison, before being released in 1987. Those present at the hearing were sad that he didn’t live to see his exoneration. Two of his sons, Ameen and Shahid Johnson, were gathered in the courtroom on Thursday, and tears welled in their eyes after the judge’s decision.
“I honestly didn’t think that I was going to live to see the day,” said Ameen Johnson, 57, in a brief interview outside the courtroom before the hearing began.
“It’s good but bittersweet,” he said, noting the absence of his father and mother. “They’re the ones who suffered.”
One of his lawyers, David Shanies, called Mr. Aziz “a dignified and brave man” who “suffered enough injustice for a thousand lifetimes” on Thursday, while expressing disappointment that Mr. Islam “never lived to see the day of his exoneration.”
“Nothing can give back these men or their families the decades of freedom that was stolen from them,” Mr. Shanies said, calling the two men victims of the same racism that Malcolm X spoke against throughout his life.
Mujahid Abdul Haim, a third man, was also found guilty. His conviction stands. He confessed that he had committed the murder, but maintained that he was innocent.
The announcement that the convictions would be overturned on Wednesday sparked waves of reaction from historians, civil rights leaders, and the public. They lamented the decades Mr. Aziz spent in prison, as well as the decades Mr. Islam spent there. The Rev. Al Sharpton called the miscarriage of justice “a strange and perverted irony.”
The wrongful convictions also allowed others to escape accountability, compounding the tragedy of a killing that silenced one of America’s most influential Black leaders — a man whose words and ideas still reverberate in contemporary social justice movements.
Historical historians claim that the assassins died along with witnesses and police officers who handled the case.
After meeting with Mr. Aziz, his lawyers from Innocence Project, and the office Mr. Shanies, a civil-rights lawyer, Mr. Vance decided to take up the case in January 2020. The “search for the truth” in the investigation was “severely impacted by the passage of time,” Mr. Vance said on Thursday, while apologizing on behalf of law enforcement.
On Thursday, Barry Scheck, the co-founder of the Innocence Project, called for officials to undertake “a larger investigation with greater access to evidence to get the history right.” He said that the suppression of exculpatory evidence by F.B.I. and police officials served to inflict “immeasurable” damage to the lives of the two wrongfully convicted men — and altered the record of a moment that still holds deep relevance five decades later.
“It would have changed the history of the civil rights movement in this country,” Mr. Scheck said.
Source: NY Times