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Convictions will be thrown out for 2 men convicted of killing Malcolm X

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Who killed Malcolm X? The official answer to that question changes today. The civil rights leader was assassinated in 1965. He had just started speaking in the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, and three gunmen opened fire. Two of the men who were found guilty of the murder in 1966 always said they were innocent. Today, their convictions will be thrown out. In a moment, we'll hear from Tamara Payne, who co-authored a biography of Malcolm X. But first, I'm joined by NPR criminal justice correspondent Jasmine Garsd. Jasmine, pretty remarkable turn of events. So walk us through the investigation that led us up to this moment.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: This was a 22-month-long investigation conducted by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, lawyers for the two men and the nonprofit Innocence Project. And what they say they found was that back in 1965, both the FBI and the NYPD withheld key evidence that - it would have likely led to Aziz and Islam's acquittal. We're talking about FBI documents that implicated other suspects and pointed away from Islam and Aziz's failure to disclose NYPD files, which revealed that a reporter for the New York Daily News received a call that morning, the morning of the assassination, indicating that Malcolm X was going to be murdered.

MARTINEZ: Fifty years is a long time to wait to review a case. Why is this investigation happening now?

GARSD: Well, recently, a Netflix documentary about the assassination renewed interest in the case, but the conviction of Aziz and Islam was always called into question from day one. They were part of the Nation of Islam, which Malcolm X had acrimoniously separated from shortly before his murder. But there was no physical evidence that tied Aziz or Islam to the crime scene, let alone the murder. Both men offered very credible alibis. Witnesses contradicted each other. This was not at all clear-cut.

MARTINEZ: OK. So Aziz and Islam are being exonerated. Are we any closer, then, to knowing who killed - who actually killed Malcolm X?

GARSD: No, it remains unknown. Throughout the years, people pointed to another member of the Nation of Islam who did not get arrested. There are also questions about why. If there was knowledge that Malcolm X's life was in danger - and there were undercover law enforcement officers present at the time of the murder - why wasn't anything done to prevent it?

MARTINEZ: What ever became of those two men, Aziz and Islam?

GARSD: Aziz was released in 1985. He is 83 years old now. Khalil Islam was released in 1987, and he died in 2009. They and their families have expressed relief but also acknowledge that the damage done was irreparable. Even after they were released, they were widely seen as Malcolm X's killers. They had to exist in their communities with this stigma.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR criminal justice correspondent Jasmine Garsd. Jasmine, thank you.

GARSD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.