Man exonerated in Malcolm X's murder sues NYC for $40 million

Muhammad Aziz stands outside of a New York City courthouse with members of his family and lawyers after his conviction in the killing of Malcolm X was thrown out on November 18, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A man who was exonerated last year in the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X has filed a $40 million lawsuit against New York City for the two decades he spent in prison for a notorious crime he did not commit.

Lawyers for 84-year-old Muhammad Aziz filed the lawsuit Thursday in federal court in Brooklyn over Aziz's wrongful conviction in the murder of Malcolm X, the civil rights leader who urged Black people to seek justice "by any means necessary."

An additional complaint was filed on behalf of the estate of Khalil Islam, a second man who was wrongly convicted in the assassination.

Malcolm X was shot to death Feb. 21, 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom in upper Manhattan. Aziz and Islam, then known as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, and a third man were convicted of murder in March 1966 and sentenced to life in prison.

The third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim, admitted to shooting Malcolm X but said neither Aziz nor Islam was involved. Halim was paroled in 2010.

A Manhattan judge dismissed the convictions of Aziz and Islam in November 2021 after prosecutors said new evidence of witness intimidation and suppression of exculpatory evidence had undermined the case against them. Then-District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. apologized for law enforcement’s "serious, unacceptable violations of law and the public trust."

Attorneys David Shanies and Deborah Francois said in complaints filed Thursday that both Aziz and Islam were at their homes in the Bronx when Malcolm X was killed.

They said Aziz "spent 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit and more than 55 years living with the hardship and indignity attendant to being unjustly branded as a convicted murderer of one of the most important civil rights leaders in history."

Islam spent 22 years in prison and died still hoping to clear his name. "The damage done to Mr. Islam and his family was immense and irreparable," the lawyers wrote.

A spokesperson for New York City's law department referred a request for comment to Mayor Eric Adams, who said in a statement, "As someone who has fought for a fairer criminal justice system for my entire career, I believe the overturning of Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam’s convictions was the just outcome. We are reviewing this lawsuit."