Two men who for decades steadfastly maintained their innocence in the 1965 assassination of US civil rights leader Malcolm X were exonerated on Thursday after a nearly two-year reinvestigation of the case.
Muhammad Aziz, now 83, and the late Khalil Islam were convicted in 1966 after a trial in which authorities withheld evidence favourable to the defence, said their lawyers, activist group the Innocence Project and civil rights lawyer David Shanies.
Mr Aziz and two of Islam's sons were present in the court on Thursday when State Supreme Court Justice Ellen Biben vacated the convictions.
Applause broke out in the courtroom as Ms Biben made her decision after saying she regretted that the court could not give Mr Aziz and Islam back the years they had lost due to the wrongful convictions.
“These men did not get the justice that they deserved,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr said in an interview with The New York Times. “What we can do is acknowledge the error, the severity of the error.”
Malcolm X was killed on February 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem as he was beginning a speech.
Mujahid Abdul Halim — also known as Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagan — was taken into custody at the scene with a bullet wound to the leg.
Mr Aziz and Islam were arrested several days later. Both denied involvement in the assassination and provided alibis for the time of the shooting.
The three men — Mr Aziz, Islam and Hagan — were convicted of murder in March 1966 and sentenced to life in prison.
In a statement on Wednesday, Mr Aziz said that “the events that brought us here should never have occurred; those events were and are the result of a process that was corrupt to its core — one that is all too familiar — even in 2021.
“While I do not need a court, prosecutors or a piece of paper to tell me I am innocent, I am glad that my family, my friends and the attorneys who have worked and supported me all these years are finally seeing the truth we have all known officially recognised.”
Hagan said he was one of three gunmen who shot Malcolm X, but he said that neither Mr Aziz nor Islam was involved. No physical evidence linked them to the crime.
Malcolm X gained national prominence as the voice of the Nation of Islam, often speaking about the importance of black people claiming their civil rights “by any means necessary” in his highly visible role with the organisation.
But he later split with the group and, after a trip to Makkah, started speaking about the potential for racial unity. It earned him the ire of some in the Nation of Islam, who saw him as a traitor.
Mr Aziz was released in 1985. Islam was released two years later and died in 2009.
Agencies contributed to this report