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Lawyers for men exonerated in Malcolm X killing discuss wrongful convictions

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In a Manhattan courtroom Thursday, two men were finally relieved of a decades-old burden they should never have carried to begin with - their wrongful convictions in the murder of Malcolm X.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CY VANCE: We are moving today to vacate the convictions and dismiss the indictments of Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam for the assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965.

MARTIN: That's Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance formally clearing the men after an investigation by his office revealed new evidence of the men's innocence and misconduct by local law enforcement and the FBI during the men's trial more than 50 years ago. Two other lawyers played a crucial role in the exonerations - David Shanies and Barry Scheck. Scheck is a co-founder of the Innocence Project, which seeks to exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and advocates reforms to prevent future injustices. Shanies is a civil rights attorney focusing on wrongful convictions. They represented Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam and are here with us to tell us more.

Mr. Shanies, Mr. Scheck, thank you so much for being with us.

DAVID SHANIES: Thanks for having us.

BARRY SCHECK: Our pleasure.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Scheck, you said yesterday that this has been, quote, "an exoneration in plain sight for decades." The third man found guilty of Malcolm X's assassination, Talmadge Hayer, confessed to the crime. And he told the jury that Aziz and Islam were not involved. In fact, there were multiple witnesses who could establish they were nowhere near it. So why did this happen now, more than 50 years after the fact?

SCHECK: Well, that's a disturbing aspect of this entire matter. The essence of the reason that Cyrus Vance threw out the charges, vacated the conviction and dismissed the case is that in the files of the FBI and the New York City Police Department bosse squad (ph), sometimes known as the Red Squad, was information that there was an individual who fit the description of the man with the shotgun that was supposed to be Mr. Islam that looked nothing like Mr. Islam. And then very quickly thereafter, they learned that he could well be a lieutenant in the Newark mosque named William Bradley, who not only fit the description but the background of somebody that had expertise in the military.

So they knew this all. And they - what the bosse squad knew but not the FBI and not apparently the other NYPD individuals is that on the stage, giving Malcolm mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was an undercover named Gene Roberts. The point is none of this was known to the district attorney. And if it had been disclosed to the district attorney's office, it had been disclosed to the defense and the court and the American public, the history of the civil rights movement in this country would have been different.

MARTIN: Wow, that's a lot to carry. That's - so the prosecution didn't know this, either. This information was withheld both from the prosecution and the defense.

SCHECK: That is correct.

MARTIN: Mr. Shanies, as I mentioned, you focus on wrongful convictions as well as police and prosecutor misconduct. What does this case bring up for you?

SHANIES: You know, it was a few years before the trial of this case that the Supreme Court issued its Brady decision, which was the seminal case that talked about the prosecutor's obligation and the government's obligation to turn over evidence that's favorable to a criminal defendant. And, you know, Barry and the Innocence Project and I have worked on many cases involving the suppression of evidence of innocence from defendants but nothing in the league of this case in terms of the amount of information and the significance of the information.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Shanies, I'm trying to wrap my head around the fact that the principal defendant here, who admits that he killed Malcolm X, said years ago that these other two men had nothing to do with it. Now, both were granted parole in the '80s. Mr. Islam died in 2009, but nevertheless, they spent years in prison. And presumably, the politics had changed to the point where people were willing to listen. I still don't understand, like, why it took so long for them even to get a hearing.

SHANIES: Well, there was an effort in the 1970s to reopen this matter. The attorney Bill Kunstler filed the motion in 1977, after Talmadge Hayer went a step further than his trial testimony, where he refused to name his fellow assassins, and he actually identified all of them. The FBI had this information. The NYPD had this information. They hid it from the district attorney's office, and even the district attorney itself suppressed some of the information that they should have turned over. Certainly, there were many missteps, to say the least, gross misconduct by the government that continued the suppression of this information for decades.

SCHECK: Yeah. And, Michel, you know...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Mr. Scheck.

SCHECK: ...What's interesting about all this trying to be hopeful is that this is an official acknowledgement of the wrongful conviction and the misconduct that occurred. And one of the things in my experience is that when the state admits it's wrong - right? - that at least begins to start moving processes forward. So hopefully, you know, people can, to the extent that's even possible, be compensated but, most important of all, that we get the history of this right.

MARTIN: And before we let each of you go, what about the present and then what about the future? I mean, first of all, Mr. Shanies, maybe you take this one. For the families, does more need to be said or done, you know, for them?

SHANIES: Sure. Well, you know, you're absolutely right. The families have suffered for decades with this. You know, Muhammad Aziz - who is still alive - after spending 20 years in prison spent the next 35 or so years, you know, nominally free but living under the shadow of being the convicted murderer of one of the most towering civil rights icons in history. And the same is true for Khalil Islam, who died still believing that his name would never be cleared. So, yes, this resolution is important, but it's not justice. I think someone recently called it justice with an asterisk, and I think that's a pretty apt description of it.

MARTIN: So, Barry Scheck, final thought from you. Is there a broader - is there some other reform more broadly that should be discussed as part of this?

SCHECK: Yes, we need access to law enforcement misconduct information. One of the things that people have lost track of is, really, starting in the 1950s, largely at the instigation of police unions, statutes were passed all across the country that rendered off-limits information, even about police officers who had been disciplined by their own police departments for acts of dishonesty, sexual assault, really bad acts of misconduct. And there's no real good way to have oversight. Business people say all the time, you can't manage what you don't measure.

MARTIN: That's Barry Scheck and David Shanies. They represented two men, Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam, who were convicted and are now exonerated in the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X. Thank you both so much for talking with us.

SCHECK: Thank you so much, Michel.

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

Corrected: November 20, 2021 at 10:00 PM MST
An earlier headline for this segment misspelled the name of Malcolm X as Malcom X.