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Man Exonerated in Malcolm X Murder Files Lawsuit Against New York State

Standing in a Manhattan courtroom last month, Muhammad A. Aziz lamented the miscarriage of justice that had wrongly labeled him one of Malcolm X’s killers for more than five decades.

Now, Mr. Aziz — one of two men exonerated in the assassination of one of the most influential Black leaders of the civil rights era — has filed a claim against New York State for at least $20 million in damages, citing the toll that being “unjustly branded as a convicted murderer” inflicted on his mental well-being, public reputation and personal relationships.

His lawyers have also notified New York City that he intends to file a $40 million civil rights lawsuit against the city in 90 days if an agreement is not reached before that date.

Taken together, the actions represent Mr. Aziz’s first attempt to seek redress since the official reshaping of the historical record of the 1965 murder. In the claim against the state, his lawyers write that any monetary award would represent only “a modicum of compensation for the destruction wrought by this grievous miscarriage of justice.”

“The more than 20 years that I spent in prison were stolen from me and my family, and while the official record now recognizes the truth that has been known for decades, nothing can undo the damage that my wrongful conviction caused to all of us,” Mr. Aziz said in a statement. “Those responsible for depriving me of my liberty and for depriving my family of a husband, a father, and a grandfather should be held accountable.”

Mr. Aziz, 83, and his co-defendant, Khalil Islam, were exonerated last month after an extensive investigation by the Manhattan district attorney’s office and lawyers for the two men found that they had not received a fair trial in 1966. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York Police Department withheld crucial evidence that cast doubt on the men’s guilt and would have most likely led to their acquittal, the investigators found.

The New York State attorney general, Letitia James, will determine how Mr. Aziz’s claim against the state is adjudicated and any compensation that he would receive.

“This is the quintessential case that calls out for redress,” David Shanies, a lawyer for the two men, said in an interview. “The attorney general has the opportunity to do what no government official has done throughout the sordid 56- year history of this case — which is to reach a just outcome without delay.”

Neither the state attorney general nor the city comptroller — which would review the notice filed with the city — immediately responded to a request for comment. A spokesman for the city law department said that the department would review the case if a lawsuit is filed.

Victims of wrongful conviction often sue government authorities after being exonerated, and the payouts can stretch into the millions of dollars. In 2014, five men who were convicted in the beating and rape of a jogger in Central Park reached a $41 million settlement with New York City, even as the city continued to assert that its prosecutors and detectives had done nothing wrong. In 2017, the city agreed to pay $13 million to Anthony Yarbough and the estate of Sharif Wilson, both of whom spent more than 20 years in prison before being exonerated by the Brooklyn district attorney.

Similar filings are expected soon on behalf of the estate of Mr. Islam, who spent 22 years in prison and died in 2009.

Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were arrested soon after the murder of Malcolm X on Feb. 21, 1965. They were convicted the following year despite a total lack of physical evidence and conflicting accounts from prosecution witnesses.

Mr. Aziz said at the court hearing where his wrongful conviction was thrown out that he was the victim of a “process that was corrupt to its core,” one that he added remained “all too familiar” to Black people.

He was 26 when he was first imprisoned and spent much of his adulthood behind bars. While he was serving time, his marriage collapsed and his wife left him. And he was the father to six young children, whose upbringings he missed large portions of — and who lawyers said faced stigma because of their father’s conviction.

During his 20 years in prison, Mr. Aziz became an imam and impressed correctional authorities with his leadership ability even as he spent what the claim says was “a substantial amount of time” in solitary confinement.

According to a 1981 letter sent by a former commissioner of correctional services, Benjamin Ward, to New York’s governor, Hugh L. Carey, Mr. Aziz played an important role in mediating a strike undertaken by detainees at Attica in the late 1970s, using his influence to help ensure that “the demonstration was brought to a peaceful conclusion without violence.”

He was released on parole in 1985, by which time, the landscape of his life had vastly changed.

The 22-month review initiated by the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., produced a host of new findings, including an interview with a new witness who corroborated Mr. Aziz’s statement at trial that he had been home at the time of the assassination; details on more than a dozen reports compiled by the F.B.I. and the Police Department that were not disclosed to the two men’s lawyers before the trial; and information about police reports that would have helped their defense.

Scholars and historians had long held doubts about the guilt of Mr. Islam and Mr. Aziz. At the trial, a third man whose conviction stands, Mujahid Abdul Halim, confessed to the murder and said the other two men were innocent. He later revealed the names of the men he said were the real co-conspirators in the plot.

But calls for various authorities including Congress, a former New York State attorney general, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. to reinvestigate the case went ignored. Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam remained known in the eyes of the law as Malcolm X’s killer for 55 years.

“To be in that position when you know you’re innocent. And so many other people know that you’re innocent,” said Deborah Francois, a lawyer for the men. “Can you imagine the psychological toll that takes on you?”

Mr. Aziz, who had served in the Navy, obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in religious studies while in prison. He worked as chief of security for the Harlem mosque after his release.

He has tried to avoid ruminating on the frustrations of his past, his lawyers said. But, they added, it was clear that his life had been forever shaped by what he endured.

“It’s a scar that can never really heal,” Mr. Shanies said. “He’ll have to carry that for the rest of his life, just like Khalil carried it to his grave.”

Ashley Southall contributed reporting.

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