Convictions will be overturned for pair in 1965 assassination of Malcolm X

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NEW YORK — Two men found guilty in the Audubon Ballroom assassination of Malcolm X were cleared in the 1965 murder after a lengthy new investigation, with prosecutors set to toss their wrongful convictions at a Thursday hearing, sources told the Daily News.

The stunning announcement followed a 22-month probe by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. and attorneys representing the men found guilty and imprisoned in a long-controversial murder case stretching across parts of six decades.

The revelation of the two men’s innocence raised more questions than it answered, most prominently involving the alleged roles of the NYPD, FBI and prosecutors in the miscarriage of justice against the pair.

All three agencies were exposed for withholding key exculpatory evidence against defendants Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

“The assassination of Malcolm X was a historic event that demanded a scrupulous investigation and prosecution, but instead produced one of the most blatant miscarriages of justice that I have ever seen,” said attorney Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project.

Fellow Innocence Project lawyer Vanessa Potkin cited the “recently unearthed evidence of Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam’s innocence that had been hidden by the NYPD and FBI” and called for additional investigation into exactly how the pair were railroaded.

The official word on the case was expected to come Thursday at a news conference with Vance, with a massive media turnout expected in the long-overdue exonerations.

According to the Times, the FBI, prosecutors and the NYPD were implicated in the sketchy investigation of a murder that reverberates 56 years after Malcolm was shot 16 times and killed in front of his pregnant wife and three of his daughters.

“The NYPD cooperated fully with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office’s recent review of the investigation and prosecution,” according to a department spokeswoman.

Prosecutors did not identify any possible new suspects in the killing as Malcolm rose to address a crowd inside the ballroom, the Times said. But doubts were raised over the years about the convictions of the two soon-to-be-cleared men, Aziz and Islam, known respectively at the time as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson.

The fiery Muslim leader was blasted by three shooters on Feb, 21, 1965. One of the killers unloaded on Malcolm X with a shotgun as an crowd of 400 watched in horror on a Sunday afternoon, with the 39-year-old pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

Aziz was arrested five days after the shooting, with Malcolm’s former driver Islam taken into custody five days later. The two were convicted on March 11, 1966, and sentenced to life behind bars.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan acknowledged in 1994 that he “helped create the atmosphere” that led to Malcolm’s murder, but denied any involvement.

Across the decades, an assortment of books and a documentary suggested the assassination was the work of everyone from the Nation of Islam to the FBI or another government organization.

The wrongfully convicted Islam died in 2009, 22 years after his release from prison. Aziz, now 83, was turned lose in 1985 after 19 years behind bars. Civil rights attorney David Shanies demanded additional investigation into the government’s role in the murder plot and the prosecution.

Defense witnesses testified at trial that both men were at home when the killing occurred, and 10 prosecution eyewitnesses provided contradictory accounts of what happened. There was additionally no physical evidence connecting Aziz or Islam to the crime.

“These innocent men experienced the agony of decades in prison for a crime they did commit,” said Shanies. “They were robbed of their freedoms in the prime of their lives and branded the killers of a towering civil rights leader ... exonerating these men is a righteous and well-deserved affirmation of their true character.”

Police Department files reviewed in the investigation indicated the Daily News received a phone call on the morning of the murder with word that Malcolm X would be killed, according to the Times. An initial Daily News review of articles from the time found no mention of any phone call.