The Manhattan District Attorney's Office is taking a second look at the brutal 1965 assassination of civil rights activist Malcolm X following Netflix's release of a new six-part documentary that alleges -- as numerous scholars have over the past five decades -- that the wrong men were convicted for the crime.
Danny Frost, director of communications for District Attorney Cyrus Vance, confirmed to WPIX in New York City that Vance's office is conducting a review.
"District Attorney Vance has met with representatives from the Innocence Project and associated counsel regarding this matter," Frost said in a statement obtained by the news station. "He has determined that the district attorney's office will begin a preliminary review of the matter, which will inform the office regarding what further investigative steps may be undertaken."
The office’s senior trial counsel, Peter Casolaro, and Charles King, deputy chief of the Conviction Integrity Unit, are leading the review of the Feb. 21, 1965, assassination, Frost said.
Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, was a prominent leader in the Nation of Islam but had a very public and very bitter break from the group and its leader, Elijah Muhammad, the year before his death, according to MalcolmX.com. Over the ensuing months, Malcolm had received numerous death threats and, a week before his murder, on Valentine's Day, his East Elmhurst home was firebombed with him, his wife and their four young daughters inside.
The following week, at a speaking engagement at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, Malcolm, 39, was gunned down, shot at least 15 times at close range with multiple weapons, including a sawed-off shotgun, the website says. The ballroom was the location of weekly meetings of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, the group Malcolm founded after his split from the Nation of Islam.
His alleged assassins were identified as Nation of Islam members Mujahid Abdul Halim, Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam. All three were convicted of murder in March 1966.
Halim, who went by the name Talmadge Hayer at the time of the shooting, admitted his role in Malcolm’s killing at trial, but said neither Aziz nor Islam were involved. Halim was captured after being shot in the leg by one of Malcolm’s bodyguards and beaten and held for police by witnesses to the assassination.
According to the Netflix documentary, "Who Killed Malcolm X," Halim, who has also gone by the name Thomas Hagan, was paroled in March 2010 after 45 years in prison.
Aziz, then known as Norman 3X Butler, and Islam, then known as Thomas 15X Johnson, had always maintained their innocence, however. According to the Innocence Project, Islam, who was paroled in 1987, died in 2009.
Aziz, now 81, continues his efforts to clear his name, with help from lawyers from the nonprofit organization and another attorney, David Shanies. He has been free on parole since 1985.
In 1998, Aziz was hired to lead the Muhammad Mosque No. 7 in Harlem -- the same mosque in which Malcolm X preached in the 1950s.
"We are grateful that District Attorney Vance quickly agreed to conduct a review of the conviction of Muhammad Aziz. Given the historical importance of this case and the fact that our client is 81 years old, we are especially encouraged that Mr. Vance has assigned two highly respected prosecutors, Peter Casolaro and Charles King, to work on this re-investigation," Barry Scheck, Innocence Project co-founder and special counsel, said in a statement. "Mr. Casolaro did extraordinary work on the case of the Exonerated Five and Mr. King is an experienced member of the Conviction Integrity Program.
“We look forward to working cooperatively with them to see that justice is done.”
A page on the Innocence Project website dedicated to Aziz’s case states that there was no physical evidence linking either him or Islam to the high-profile shooting. Eyewitnesses identified the two men, both members of Malcolm’s former Nation of Islam mosque in Harlem, as being there that night.
His attorneys claim, however, that Aziz has an alibi -- he was home tending to recent leg injuries. A doctor from Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx testified in his defense that he was treated there just hours before Malcolm's assassination, the website states.
“The day of the murder, which was a Sunday morning, I was laying over the couch with my foot up and I heard it over the radio,” Aziz remembered in the documentary.
Islam maintained that he was also home suffering from a bout with his rheumatoid arthritis, according to The Washington Post. Both he and Aziz said they never would have been allowed inside the ballroom the day of the assassination because, as members of the Harlem mosque, they would have immediately been recognized by Malcolm's security team and thrown out.
Halim testified in 1966 that both Aziz and Islam were innocent, but did not name the men who helped him in the shooting.
"I was there. I know what happened and I know the people who were there," he said, according to the Innocence Project.
It would be more than a decade after his conviction that Halim identified the four men he said accompanied him and participated in the assassination. In sworn affidavits given to civil rights lawyer William Kunstler from prison in 1977 and 1978, Halim said he and the other conspirators, all members of a Nation of Islam mosque in Newark, New Jersey, staked out Malcolm’s home and the ballroom in advance and, finding the civil rights leader’s home too heavily guarded, decided to kill him at the ballroom because no one was searching for weapons at the door.
The documentary points out that, despite the firebombing at Malcolm's home the week before, just two uniformed police officers were in the building the day of the assassination. Neither was in the ballroom when the shooting occurred, the film claims.
Watch the trailer for “Who Killed Malcolm X?” below. The six-part documentary is now streaming on Netflix.
“We decided to visit the ballroom the night before the killing to set this up,” Halim stated in the 1978 affidavit. “It was a dance that night and we came there like everyone else, got a ticket, went in and looked the place over. This was Feb. 20, 1965.”
The day of the assassination, the group went over the plan once more before arriving at the ballroom. They entered the room in pairs and sat apart. One conspirator who sat in the back was tasked with distracting Malcolm’s bodyguards by claiming someone picked his pocket, the affidavit said.
In an audio recording from that day, which is contained in the documentary, a man can be heard shouting for someone to get his hand out of his pocket. Moments before being fatally shot, Malcolm is heard trying to calm the men down from the stage.
“I used a .45(-caliber) weapon,” Halim said in the 1977 affidavit. “Brother Lee had a Luger and Willie X had the shotgun. The plan was that when the shooting, started people would be running all over the place, and with this, we could get out of the ballroom.
“So, when the shotgun went off, Brother Lee and me fired our guns at Malcolm X and ran for the door. I was shot in the right leg, but was able to keep moving on just one leg. I was able to get down stairs by sliding down railing to the floor. I was captured right outside ballroom by a police officer.”
In his affidavit the following year, Halim identified the other four men as William Bradley, Leon Davis, Benjamin Thomas and Wilbur McKinley.
Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, a Washington, D.C., tour guide and self-taught researcher whose work forms the basis of the documentary on the case, uncovered Bradley's identity in 2010, according to The New York Times. Bradley, who had changed his name to Almustafa Shabazz, had married a Newark activist and remained active in the community, participating in the mayoral campaign of former Newark mayor and one-time 2020 presidential contender Cory Booker.
Bradley, who died in 2018, fired the shotgun blast that killed Malcolm, researchers contend.
Muhammad believes the other three men identified by Halim are also now dead, the Times reported.
There have been multiple attempts over the decades by attorneys, activists and researchers to have the assassination investigation reopened. All efforts have been denied.
"The real bottom line to everything we have here is that white prosecution authorities have never, across this entire chunk of time -- decades of time -- taken a serious interest in investigating, pursuing and solving Malcolm's murder," civil rights historian David Garrow says in the documentary. "For Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, this has been a very lonely crusade."