He was exonerated in the killing of Malcolm X but his fight for justice is not over

Muhammad Aziz spoke out in an interview on ABC News' "Soul of a Nation."

February 1, 2024, 9:28 AM

"Soul of a Nation presents: X/ONERATED: The Murder of Malcolm X & 55 Years to Justice" February 1 on ABC at 10:13 p.m. ET following the season premiere of "Genius: MLK/X."

This story was originally published on Feb. 3, 2022.

More than half a century since Malcolm X was murdered, questions still remain about the identity of his killers as well as the motives of FBI and NYPD investigators.

For Muhammad A. Aziz, who was exonerated last year in the killing of the iconic civil rights leader, the fight for justice is not over.

'God's on my side'

In his first TV interview since his exoneration, Aziz and members of his family opened up about the wrongful conviction and trauma of systemic racism.

"If God is on your side it doesn't matter who's against you. God's on my side," Aziz said in an interview that is set to air on Thursday evening on ABC News' "Soul of a Nation Presents: X/onerated - The Murder of Malcolm X and 55 Years to Justice."

Muhammad Aziz stands outside of a New York City courthouse with members of his family and lawyers after his conviction in the killing of Malcolm X was thrown out on Nov. 18, 2021 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images, FILE

Khalil Islam died in 2009 at the age of 74. He too was convicted for the murder of Malcolm X, and later exonerated in Nov. 2021.

Islam's son Khalil Ibn Islam said although he and his family were "elated" when his father was exonerated, "the sad part" is that his father was not there to witness it.

Aziz was a former Navy Vet. Both he and Islam were members of the Nation of Islam and belonged to Malcolm X's mosque #7 in Harlem. They served decades in prison and missed out on raising their children.

Norman Butler, 26, leaves the police station, following his interrogation in New York, Feb. 27, 1965. He is accused of having participated in the shooting which killed the black nationalist leader Malcolm X.
Archives/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Although the exoneration took decades, Aziz said he "never lost" his good name.

"The book tells you a good name is worth – is better than fine gold," he said. "So this name is gold, better than gold."

'I used to cry for my father'

The two men were not present at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City where Malcolm X was killed on Feb. 21, 1965. Yet days later they were each arrested in connection with the killing.

"They came to arrest me for something that I didn't do," Aziz said.

Elijah Muhammad, founder and head of the Nation of Islam, right, introduces Malcolm X in Chicago, Feb. 26, 1961.
Paul Cannon/AP, FILE

Although there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime, they were found guilty and were sentenced to life in prison.

"When I was young, I just knew my father was taken away from me. I didn't know why," Aziz's son Craig Butler said. "I used to cry for my father."

Ibn Islam recalled coming home from school one day and his aunt showing him a copy of newspaper about "the third man accused of assassinating Malcolm X." He said he was "surprised" to see a big picture of his father.

Khalil Islam, center, formerly known as Thomas 15X Johnson, 30, arrives at police station to be booked on a charge of homicide.
UPI/Bettmann Archive via Getty Images, FILE

Talmadge Hayer – the confessed assassin of Malcom X who was caught at the scene – testified at trial that Aziz and Islam were not involved in the killing. In the late 1970s, Hayer signed an affidavit naming four other men who he said were involved in planning and carrying out the murder.

But the case was not reopened.

"They didn't care about my children. They didn't care about me. They didn't care about anything except what they wanted, which was a conviction," Aziz said.

Ibn Islam described the "emptiness" he felt as a child growing up without his father.

Muhammad Aziz stands outside Manhattan court with journalist Abdur-Rahmman Muhammad, after Aziz's conviction in the killing of Malcolm X was vacated, Nov. 18, 2021, in New York.
Seth Wenig/AP, FILE

"I had little resentments when somebody spoke about their father because I didn't have a father," he said.

In a tearful interview, Aziz's daughter Edris B. Green told "Soul of a Nation" that for 26 years she lived without knowing who her father was and described what it was like to visit him in prison for the first time.

"Seeing my dad for the first time was shocking," she said, explaining that he looked like an older version of her brother. "It was a warm feeling … it felt like home."

After serving 20 years in prison, Aziz was released on parole in 1985. Two years later, Islam was released after serving 22 years. They each appealed their convictions and always maintained their innocence.

'America's not the place people thought it was'

For years, calls to reexamine the case were not answered.

"Nobody was listening," Aziz said.

Crowds and police officers stand outside the Audubon Ballroom prior to the appearance of Malcolm X, on Feb. 21, 1965 in New York City. The nationalist leader was later assassinated inside the ballroom.
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images, FILE

But in 2020 interest in the case was renewed following the release of "Who Killed Malcolm X?" – a Netflix documentary that follows the work of independent historian Abdur-Rahman Muhammad who spent decades investigating the killing.

"After I had watched the Netflix documentary. I thought there was enough to look at this," Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance told ABC News' "Soul of a Nation."

The DA's office, along with David Shanies and Deb Francois of the Shanies Law Office and the Innocence Project, launched a new investigation and found that the FBI failed to disclose documents that cast doubt on the involvement of Aziz and Islam.

Vance criticized the way law enforcement handled the case and said the investigation revealed that certain witnesses, acting under orders from then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, were instructed not to reveal they were FBI informants.

A policeman clears the way as Nationalist leader Malcolm X is carried from the Audubon Ballroom where he was fatally shot on Feb. 21, 1965.
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images, FILE

Vance moved to vacate the convictions of Aziz and Islam in November 2021 citing "newly discovered evidence and the failure to disclose exculpatory evidence."

Aziz, who was 26 when he went to prison, was 83 when his name was cleared.

Asked what has changed, Aziz said that "we live in a time of the manifestation of all defects."

"People find out America's not the place people thought it was."

'We want to know the truth'

Aziz and the estate of Khalil Islam filed two multi-million dollar civil lawsuits last year aimed at New York state government officials. They intend to sue the city of New York.

"Everybody that was in some kind of way close to me, psychologically, emotionally, physically – those people suffered, too," Aziz said. "Some were threatened."

Vance apologized last year on behalf of law enforcement for "serious, unacceptable violations of law and the public trust."

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance makes a statement in a courtroom in New York, Aug. 18, 2021.
Curtis Means/AP

"The wound here was not just to the men who were convicted and Malcolm X's family," he said, reflecting on the apology. "The victim here was the loss of trust that people have in our justice system."

Malcolm X's daughter Ilyasah Shabazz told "Soul of a Nation" her family is still seeking answers after all these years.

"We want to know the truth. We want to know why our father was killed and who did it," she said.

Malcolm X in Hartford for a two day visit.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images, FILE

For Aziz, the injustice in this case is a reflection of the systemic racism in America.

"Our people live in a state of constant trauma," he said. "How could you not be when [your] children go out, you don't know if they're coming home alive."

ABC News' Sabina Ghebremedhin contributed to this report.