Special: Inside the Exoneration of 2 Men Convicted of Killing Malcolm X

Nov. 19, 2021 AT 11 p.m. EST

The panel explored a major update in the 1965 assassination of civil rights icon Malcolm X. Two men who were found guilty of the killing were exonerated after spending more than 20 years in prison.

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- Good evening and welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I'm Yamiche Alcindor. This week, two men who were found guilty of the assassination of Civil Rights icon, Malcolm X had their convictions thrown out. Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam spent more than 20 years in prison for the 1965 murder. Islam was released in 1987 and always maintained his innocence until his death in 2009. The exonerations came after a 22 month investigation conducted by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and the lawyers for the two men. It revealed that prosecutors on the case, as well as the FBI and the NYPD withheld key evidence that could have led to the men's acquittal. Here's what Aziz had to say after his exoneration.

- I am very glad that my family, my friends and attorneys who have worked and supported me all these years are finally seeing the truth that we have all known, officially recognized. I hope the same system that was responsible for this travesty of gestures, also take responsibility for the immeasurable harm caused to me during the way of 55 or 56 years.

- The men were both victims of the type of discrimination and injustice that Malcolm X strongly denounced as part of his legacy. Joining me tonight to talk about all of this, Rachel Dretzin Director and Executive Producer for the Netflix documentary Who Killed Malcolm X. Shayla Harris, a Producer who also worked on that Netflix documentary. Tamara Payne, co-author of The Dead Are Arising, the Life of Malcolm X. She wrote that Pulitzer prize winning book along with her late father, Les Payne. And here with me in studio, Ryan Riley, Senior Justice Reporter for HuffPost. Thank you all for being here. The book is amazing. The Netflix documentary is amazing and of course, Ryan, you're amazing too. But I want to start Rachel with you because the thing that really sticks with me is, how in the world did this go so wrong? And really what went into those exonerations? How did this happen?

- Well, I mean, the incredible thing is that this evidence has been sitting in plain sight, hiding in plain sight, I guess I should say for, for many, many decades. And it really was just about connecting the dots. Not only for us to connect dots, but for Les Payne who connected the dots brilliantly in his book and for Manning Marable who published a biography of Malcolm X, years ago, which alleged that the shotgun assassin was still at large and pointed to the possibility that these two men, Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam were innocent. So, it was really about just doing the work, unearthing the documents, putting the pieces together and telling the story.

- And I know both you and Shayla were in the courtroom. Rachel, I'll start with you. What was it like to be in that courtroom as these two men were exonerated with, of course, one of them still being alive, to witness and experience that moment.

- It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I've had as a journalist and as a human being, I mean, you could feel the tension in the room, the relief in the room. Being surrounded by the families of these men, who've waited for so long for this day. And seeing Mr. Aziz finally get his moment in court. It was just amazing.

- [Yamiche] Shayla, what about you? You were there too. How extraordinary was that moment?

- [Shayla] Yeah, I was actually unable to get into the courtroom, but just knowing Aziz and being so involved in the story. It's just an incredible moment, especially as a filmmaker and as a storyteller. It's rare to really see firsthand the impact that you can have on both history and on someone's life. And especially these two men who have maintained their innocence over many, many decades. And so it was a really incredible moment to finally have their names cleared, to have it cleared so publicly. And you know, at the same time, there are still so many questions. Certainly in the key question of who actually killed Malcolm X and whether Malcolm's family will one day have a similar moment of justice.

- What were those other, Shayla to stick with you. What are the other key unanswered questions here, especially when you think about sort of what the FBI might've known, what the NYPD might've known, they had informants in the room. Talk a little bit more about what else needs to be answered?

- Well, certainly one of the things that we did for the film was dig into the documents. And one of the surprising things for me was the fact that there were so many informants. Both from the FBI and from the NYPD, who were in the room, who were basically witnesses to this crime who did not testify to what they saw, what they heard and what they knew. So the information that maybe they provided to the FBI and their superiors was certainly something that we'd love to know what that information was and how that could have impacted the case. One of the key eyewitnesses was an NYPD informant, Gene Roberts, who had been undercover as one of Malcolm's bodyguards. And he was not offered up as an eye witness in this case. And so certainly the information that they knew and there's a lot of missing evidence in terms of the murder weapons. And so certainly one of the key questions is that of those documents, there's a lot of redacted materials in there that could provide some key information about who was responsible for this. And certainly efforts to release those documents and unredacted that information, what I think the key to understanding what happened on that day.

- Yeah and Tamara, I want to come to you. I knew your father. He was an amazing, amazing journalist as you are yourself. So thank you so much again for being here. I was going to ask you about Malcolm, the man, which I'm going to do, but because Shayla just mentioned Gene Roberts, talk a little bit about who Gene Roberts is. Talk a bit also about the fact that he might've seen a possible dry run of the assassination, or at least believes he saw that. Take us into exactly who he was.

- Sure, Gene Roberts was militarily trained. And when he came out of the military and was looking for a job to support his family, his wife, in particular, who was pregnant. He was looking for a job and he was hired by BOSSI to be an informant. And they expressed to infiltrate Malcolm's Muslim Mosque Incorporated. And he described to us, my father and I spoke with him. He described to us exactly what his assignments were, and that was to report what he sees, not what he thinks, not become emotionally involved. But also he was supposed to report everything that he saw and heard. What Malcolm's movements were, where, what he was doing, what the plans were, and who else was coming into the organization, but not to worry about what other agents may be doing. He didn't know who they were. He was only focused on what his assignment was. But as far as the dry run, really key information, very interesting that when he infiltrated the group, he also became part of the Security Force Detail. And he said that on the week before the assassination, Malcolm was giving a speech and there was a disturbance and the disturbance was somebody coming down the aisle towards the lecture. And Gene Robert's response was to go meet, see what this person was up to and this person just kind of diverted himself into another aisle. But what this was really it seemed to be a test and he wrote this, he would write reports every week, to say what he saw. And he said, I think I saw a dry run. I think this is gonna happen. And he sent these reports to his supervisors. Question is, is where are these reports?

- [Yamiche] Yeah.

- When I looked through the motion today, I didn't see any mention of his reports. I understand that a lot of the BOSSI reports have been destroyed over the years.

- And, and Tamara sticking with you. Talk a bit about Malcolm, the man. Who he was? Put them in context. Now we have streets named after him, but at the time he was seen as a threat, especially by the FBI and law enforcement, as well as the nation of Islam was. Who of course he had broken from, but still an organization that was seen as a threat as well.

- Yeah, I mean, when doing this book, The Dead Are Arising, one of the things that my father wanted us to do was to look at Malcolm and who he was as a person when he first started to interview his brothers. And he gets a sense of who Malcolm was and how he grew up. And what was the relationship was with his siblings and his parents, and the lessons that he learned. His mother Louise is from Grenada, but her grandfather, she was raised by her grandparents were from Nigeria. His father, Earl Little was from Georgia. And they were members of the UNIA Movement, which is the Marcus Garvey Organization. And they were organizers. And so they were organizing black people in communities that they weren't necessarily organized in. They started out in Philadelphia, moved out to a place like Omaha, Nebraska, where Malcolm was born. And then in Omaha, Nebraska, as we open our book, they are visited upon by the Klu Klux Klan chapter out there. Who are threatened by the movement, what they were doing in town. And they wanted them to leave town. So this is what Malcolm's beginnings are in, but we also have to look at the context of the society that he was born into. You have the Klan coming to his doorstep when his mother's pregnant with him. And this is what reality was then and forms of that are continuing even today.

- Yeah. And Ryan, I wanna to bring you in. Tell us a little bit about the FBI operating in the 1960s, targeting Black Civil Rights Groups, but also how it connects to present day. We covered Ferguson together, the protest there, and some of the protestors from the Black Lives Matter Movement also said that they had contacts and felt targeted by the FBI as well.

- Yeah. Actually last year I covered a Black Lives Matter supporter who actually posed for an album cover. It was a prepared photo in front of a police van, taken in the daytime. It was obviously professional shoot. And he got charges because of that. His home was raided because of that instance. And I think that overall, you basically have to realize that this isn't just a historic problem. This is a problem in the modern FBI. The FBI overwhelmingly looks far too much like me, overwhelmingly it's white and male. And that's a problem that continues to this day. So even though you have some, a few years ago, former director, James Comey started telling all of their first time special agents during their training, that they had to go to the MLK Memorial in DC as part of their training. But after that, you know what building they go back to, the J Edgar Hoover building. It's still named after him today. And I think that that's just astonishing. And when I asked Comey a few years back about when they move to a new headquarters, if they were going to rename that facility, he didn't want to touch that question. It's still a touchy one for the FBI. It seems sort of nuts, that we still have a building named after J Edgar Hoover in this day and age.

- [Yamiche] Yeah. And Rachel, I want to come back to you. Talk a bit about piecing this investigation together. There are so many moments during the documentary where I sit back and say, wow, because you're seeing this investigative journalist, Abdur-Rahman Muhammad discover the evidence in real time. And he's talking about how he's self-funded this scholarship, but he has a couple of moments where he looks at the evidence and says, "Oh my God, I think that they really let two innocent men be convicted of this." Take us inside those moments.

- Sure. Well, first of all, one of the interesting things about this process for us and for Abdur-Rhaman Mohammed, who was our kind of citizen sleuth, a man who's devoted the last several decades of his life to this story and this case, is that we began by looking at who actually killed Malcolm X with the idea that the killer or the shotgun assassin in particular could still be alive and at large. But over time as our investigation deepened and actually once that shotgun assassin passed away, we began to really focus on who didn't kill Malcolm and on the possibility that innocent men had been convicted. And so a lot of what you see in the documentary is real. I mean, Abdur-Rhaman was beginning to really piece together evidence that pointed to the innocence of Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam. One scene in particular is FBI documents, that he did not know about until deep into the filming of the documentary, in which a gentlemen named Leon Ameer had evidently told the FBI that he had been told that the guys who actually killed Malcolm were from Newark, not from Harlem, although four of the guys who were convicted, were from Harlem. And that one of them was a Lieutenant in the Newark mosque. And he described him as dark skinned and burly. And in the FBI documents, there is evidence, reports identifying a gentleman in Newark, who we came to know as Mustafa Shahbazz as being a Lieutenant in the Newark mosque, burly, all the rest of it. And these documents were just ignored. So, they didn't go anywhere. So, the scene in which Abdur-Rhaman is for the first time seeing these documents, realizing that the FBI had this information pointing to Lieutenant in the Newark mosque, identifying him by name, just blew him away.

- Yeah. And it blows the audience away watching it. It's a powerful scene. Shayla, just talk a bit more about this being an open secret, the idea that a number of people thought that these two men were innocent, but I also wonder if you could talk a little bit about the power of journalism. I'm familiar with your work before this documentary. You've been in journalism for a long time. Talk a little bit about the power of what it means that you were able, as well as the rest of the team here, as well as multiple journalists, I read the Manning Marable book when it came out and of course Les Payne and Tamara Payne's book, the power of journalism to really shine a light still on injustices.

- Yeah, I know for someone like me, who's been steeped in journalism through my entire career, and certainly was very familiar with the life and work of Malcolm X, to work on a story that is concerned with the central question of his death. You know, his life was so impactful and certainly the circumstances around his death often also reflect a lot of the questions that we continue to have about justice, about surveillance, about political extremism and religious activism. And so for us to be able to work on a story like this was really just life-changing, for sure. And I think certainly all of the skills that, our team has as a journalist and as reporters to really follow in the footsteps of some of the folks who had gone before, but to re-report and to reconfirm a lot of the stuff and try to get primary documents and primary witnesses, to get at this question, was a lot of the work that we did. And I think at the end of the day, the biggest question was, what this mere incompetence on the part of the police? Or was there something more nefarious? And I'm not sure as journalists, it's really our place to draw a conclusion, but certainly to present that information in a way that's accessible to a larger audience who may not understand that but certainly need to be aware of the history of an incredibly important and profound person in American history. You know, there are no words for being able to have that kind of impact.

- Yeah. And Tamra, last question to you. Just talk a bit about what Malcolm X, the Civil Rights icon, this person who was so, I think, blunt and clear-eyed about how this world could change when it comes to human rights, but also the state of black people. What would he think about the world now? You spent so much time talking to people who knew him. I wonder what he would say. One about the fact that these men have been exonerated through a criminal justice system that is flawed, but also we're living through this inflection point where we're still debating about race and the access that black people in particular, have to the American dream.

- Right. Well, I mean, he talked about it strenuously when he was alive and then a lot of the stuff that we are discussing today, he was talking about back then. And when we talk about things like real estate issues, , banks and stuff, that these were issues that were going on back then, buying a house wherever you want. I mean, he was talking about those problems back then. So he wouldn't have anything happy or optimistic to say, I would think, about the continuation of this, but he would be looking more to how we can attack this problem. And he would have some really good ideas. He had an economics idea. And part of that was about where African-Americans join up, having the relationship with Africans on the continent and having the African aspect connect up and understand that the problems of African-Americans in America is also connected to Africans in Nigeria and in Ghana.

- [Yamiche] Yeah, yeah. Well, thank you so much to all of you. We'll have to leave it there tonight. Thank you to Rachel, Shayla, Tamara and Ryan for joining us and sharing your reporting. And thank you for joining us. Make sure to sign up for the Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you a look at all things Washington. I'm Yamiche Alcindor Good night.

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