Two men, Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam, are exonerated in the killing of Malcolm X

  • Two men who were convicted in the 1965 assassination of Black civil rights leader Malcolm X were exonerated during a court hearing Thursday. 
  • New York County Supreme Court Judge Ellen Biben granted the motion to dismiss the convictions of Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam, ending a half-century effort to clear their names.
  • Aziz was present in court to hear the judge announce his exoneration. Islam, who had worked as a driver for Malcom X, died in 2009. 

Two men who were convicted in the 1965 assassination of Black civil rights leader Malcolm X were exonerated during a court hearing Thursday. 

New York County Supreme Court Judge Ellen Biben granted the motion to dismiss the convictions of Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam, ending a half-century effort to clear their names.

"I regret that this court cannot undo the serious miscarriage of justice," Biben said, according to NBC News. "There can be no question that this is a case that cries out for fundamental justice."

Aziz was present in court to hear the judge announce his exoneration. Islam, who had worked as a driver for Malcom X, died in 2009. 

"I'm an 83-year-old man who was victimized by the criminal justice system," Aziz said before he was exonerated, according to NBC News. 

The decision comes after a nearly two-year probe conducted by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and attorneys for the men that found the FBI and the New York Police Department withheld evidence that could have cleared them at their trial in 1966. 

Vance's spokesman confirmed with CNBC on Wednesday that Vance and the Innocence Project would ask a judge to vacate the two men's convictions. 

Evidence included prosecutors' notes that indicate they failed to disclose the presence of undercover officers in the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan when Malcom X was shot by three men on Feb. 21, 1965, the New York Times reported Wednesday. Withheld FBI documents also had information that implicated other suspects and pointed away from Aziz an Islam, the Times added. 

Vance's office opened the investigation following the 2020 release of the Netflix documentary "Who Killed Malcolm X?" The documentary casts doubt over the fairness of the convictions, proposing that the two men convicted could not have been at the scene the day the civil rights leader died. 

"Many of those documents were exculpatory. None of them were disclosed to the defense," Vance said during the Thursday hearing. "Without these files, it is clear these men did not receive a fair trial, and their convictions must be vacated."

Vance directly apologized to Aziz, his family and the families of Islam and Malcolm X at the hearing for "serious, unacceptable violations of the law and public trust."

"I apologize on behalf of our nation's law enforcement for this decades-long injustice, which has eroded public faith in institutions that are designed to guarantee the equal protection of the law," Vance said. "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."

Aziz and Islam were among the three men arrested in 1966. All were members of Nation of Islam, the extremist group that Malcolm X belonged to before leaving in 1964. 

The civil rights leader's departure led to him allegedly being targeted by the group. Malcom X's house was firebombed just a week before he was assassinated.

Both Aziz and Islam were behind bars for two decades before being released from prison in the mid-1980s. 

The third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim, admitted to playing a role in the assassination but maintained that Aziz and Islam had not taken part in it. Halim's conviction will not be affected by Thursday's exoneration of the two men.

CNBC's Dan Mangan contributed to this report.

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