It has taken more than half a century for the Malcolm X case in the United States of America to reach a conclusion of sorts. Two of his convicted killers were on Thursday exonerated after decades of doubt about who was responsible for the death of the civil rights leader. This has raised the pivotal issue of fundamental justice.
Ellen Biben, a Manhattan judge, has dismissed the convictions of Mohammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam. Their lawyers and the prosecutors submitted that “renewed investigation” had found evidence that undermined the case against the men. This gave rise to the suspicion that the authorities had withheld some of what they knew. We do not know if the fresh evidence is conclusive.
“The event that has brought us to court today should never have occurred,” Aziz told the court. “I am an 83- year-old man who was victimized by the criminal justice system. The conviction has been reversed after the death of Islam, one of the convicts. Most particularly, this has pained Islam’s sons, Ameen Johnson and Shahid Johnson. In his immediate response, Ameen said his father would have been ecstatic had he heard that his name had been cleared. “His reputation meant a lot to him”, the son said. “And now we don’t have to watch over our backs, worrying about any repercussions from anybody who thought that he might have been the one who killed Malcolm X.”
Aziz and Islam, who maintained their innocence from the start in the 1965 killing, were paroled in the 1980s. Islam died in 2009. “There can be no question that this is a case that cries out for justice,” Judge Biben said. It would be pertinent to recall that Malcolm X had gained prominence as the voice of the Nation of Islam, exhorting Blacks to claim their civil rights by “any means necessary”. His autobiography, crafted with Alex Haley, remains a classic work of modern American literature.
Towards the end of his life, he split with the Black Muslim organization. And after a visit to Mecca, he had waxed eloquent on the inbuilt potential of racial unity. That perception incurred the ire of a section of the Nation of Islam, who condemned him as a traitor. He was shot dead while beginning a speech on 21 February 1965. Aziz and Islam were originally known as 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson.
A third suspected assassin was convicted of murder in March 1966. All three were sentenced to life in jail. Mujahid Halim admitted to shooting Malcolm X and hastened to add that neither Aziz nor Islam were involved. Of course, the two offered alibis and there was no physical evidence that linked them to the crime. The case was by all accounts a torturous process. Was fundamental justice at stake? This may never be known to the Blacks of the United States of America.