According to local and federal court documents, New York City has agreed to pay $26 million to resolve claims brought on behalf of two individuals whose convictions in the 1965 killing of Malcolm X were overturned last year due to “severe miscarriages of justice.”
Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam both served more than 20 years in jail for one of the most prominent killings of the civil rights era, despite their rapid arrests and trials based on shaky evidence.
Mr. Islam’s exoneration was posthumous, but it occurred at a time when claims of racism and prejudice in the criminal justice system were once again sparking nationwide demonstrations and political discussion.
After a 22-month investigation by the Manhattan district attorney’s office, then led by Cyrus R. Vance Jr., and the men’s attorneys, prosecutors, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the New York Police Department were found to have withheld key evidence that would have likely led to acquittals if presented to the jury.
Nick Paolucci, a spokesperson for the New York City Law Department, said in a statement, “This settlement provides a modicum of justice to those who spent decades in jail and endured the shame of being wrongfully convicted of killing a renowned figure.”
Mr. Paolucci remarked, “Based on our analysis, we concur with former Manhattan district attorney Vance’s determination that Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were unfairly convicted of committing this crime.”
The compensation will be divided equally between Mr. Aziz, who was freed in 1985 and is now 84 years old, and the estate of Mr. Islam, who was released in 1987 and passed away in 2009 at the age of 74.
Mr. Shanies said that the settlement was important not only because of the historic magnitude of the underlying crime and the extent of government corruption, but also because it took more than 50 years to right the injustice, which occurred more than a decade after Mr. Islam’s death.
Mr. Shanies said, “It is terrible that he died without knowing that his name will be cleared.” Given the significance of the case and the length of time that this false conviction lasted, it was imperative that the government move expeditiously to rectify the situation.
In the litigation, Mr. Shanies and his colleague Deborah I. Francois represented Mr. Aziz and the family of Mr. Islam. Along with the Innocence Project, they cooperated with Mr. Vance’s office on the inquiry that resulted to the convictions being overturned.
Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said, in reference to long-held suspicions about the men’s convictions, “This was an obvious exoneration. Long ago, historians established that these two individuals had been wrongfully condemned.
Mr. Shanies said that New York State had achieved separate $5 million settlements with the estates of both Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam.
According to Mr. Paolucci, the agreement negotiated with the Law Department, chaired by municipal corporation attorney Sylvia O. Hinds-Radix, was also endorsed by city comptroller Brad Lander.
In less than four months after the claims were filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, the settlements were reached.
This month, Robert M. Levy, a federal magistrate judge in Brooklyn, oversaw secret conversations between the parties, according to records in the federal court docket in Brooklyn. The docket reveals that Judge Levy recommended a settlement to both parties after the conclusion of the discussions.
In recent years, the city has spent millions to resolve wrongful conviction and jail complaints. In 2014, the city paid $41 million to five men whose convictions were reversed for the horrific beating and rape of a female jogger in Central Park in 1989 — about $1 million for each year the offenders spent in prison.
The settlement for Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam echoes the civil rights history of the United States. Malcolm X was a fiery and renowned member of the Nation of Islam, an organisation that advocated racial segregation. Many members used the letter X for their surnames to restore the identities their family had lost through slavery; Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little.
In 1965, one year after leaving the Nation of Islam, he launched the Organization of Afro-American Unity and delivered a speech on February 21 at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights. Shortly after he started speaking, three shooters assaulted him. Quickly, arrests followed.
The convictions of Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam have been questioned for years. Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were convicted with a third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim, in a 1966 trial in which all three men contested the claims against them and testified in their own defence. Later, however, Mr. Halim testified once again and confirmed his role in the murder, claiming that Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were innocent.
In November of last year, Ellen N. Biben, the State Supreme Court judge who granted the men’s requests to overturn their convictions, said, “I regret that this court cannot totally repair the grave miscarriages of justice in this case and restore the many years you lost.”