Exoneration of Convicted Malcolm X Killers Shows FBI Needs to be Held AccountableBreaking News
tags: FBI, assassinations, Malcolm X
Steve Downs is the former Chief Attorney for The NY State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
On November 18, a New York judge threw out the convictions of Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam, 55 years after the two men were convicted of the February 1965 assassination of Malcolm X. A two-year investigation by the Manhattan district attorney’s office revealed that both the New York Police Department and the FBI failed to disclose exculpatory information about the men, which likely would have led to their acquittal.
Judge Ellen Biben, who presided over the hearing, spoke about the “serious miscarriages of justice”, while district attorney, Cyrus Vance, apologised for “serious unacceptable violations of the law and the public trust” by the FBI and the NYPD, and stated that the defendants did not receive a fair trial and their convictions must be vacated.
The men’s exoneration was not a surprise. Historians, journalists, and legal scholars have known for decades that the two men were innocent, while the men themselves have long maintained their innocence. The surprise was that the NYPD and FBI had kept silent about their exculpatory information, apparently content to see two innocent men framed and incarcerated for decades for a crime they did not commit. Black and other marginalised communities have also learned over the decades not to trust the FBI, given the agency’s well-documented history of targeting and animus against them.
Yet, this shocking perversion of justice raises serious questions: Were the real killers working with the FBI? And is that why the FBI withheld the information? What does it say that the only witnesses who placed Aziz and Islam at the scene of the crime were FBI informants? We do not know the answers because the NYPD and FBI still lack transparency.
The hidden exculpatory evidence was presumably gathered covertly as part of the notorious FBI counterintelligence programme from the 1950s to the 1970s known as COINTELPRO. It sought to “neutralise” Black power leaders through illegal tactics such as surveillance, infiltration, and disruption. For those familiar with these abuses and this era more broadly, the FBI’s questionable role in this case was unsurprising.