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A deathbed confession could contain clues about Malcolm X’s true assassins

Two men convicted in the assassination of the civil rights icon are set to be exonerated after an investigation led by the Manhattan district attorney. Here's what else we know.

Two of the three men convicted in the assassination of civil rights icon Malcolm X are set to be exonerated — one of them, posthumously — following an investigation by their attorneys and the Manhattan district attorney, officials announced Wednesday.

Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam served a combined 42 years behind bars for the 1965 assassination, in which Malcolm X was gunned down while delivering a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Aziz, previously known as Norman 3X Butler, is now 83 years old. Islam, known as Thomas 15X Johnson, died at age 74 in 2009. 

Investigators said prosecutors at the time, along with the FBI and the New York City Police Department, withheld crucial evidence that likely would have led to the men’s acquittal. They failed to note there had been undercover officers in the room when Malcolm X was shot, ignored alibis which have since been corroborated by a witness, and disregarded information from Mujahid Abdul Halim — the third man convicted of killing Malcom X. In his confession, Halim said neither Aziz nor Islam assisted him in the murder.

“This points to the truth that law enforcement over history has often failed to live up to its responsibilities,” Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance told The New York Times. “These men did not get the justice that they deserved.” 

The investigation didn’t detail a government conspiracy to kill Malcolm X — but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. Questions about who was behind the murder still linger, and law enforcement agencies are major suspects.

A 2020 film called “Who Killed Malcolm X?” was an impetus for Vance’s office to investigate the trial. That film outlines holes in prosecutors’ allegations against the two soon-to-be exonerated men, as well as details police and federal investigators withheld about government informants they knew had been around Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. The three men convicted in the assassination had been members of the Black nationalist group.

The film wasn’t alone in calling for a new investigation. Earlier this year, I covered a press conference featuring Reggie Wood, a man whose cousin left a deathbed confession admitting he had worked with the NYPD and the FBI to have Malcolm X killed. The author of the letter, Ray Wood, died from stomach cancer last year. He had asked his cousin not to share the letter until his death.

Ray Wood said he’d been instructed to infiltrate Malcolm X’s inner circle and devise a bombing plot involving two members of the civil rights leader’s security detail. 

“It was my assignment to draw the two men into a felonious federal crime so that they could be arrested by the FBI and kept away from managing Malcolm X’s Audubon Ballroom door security,” he wrote. 

In his letter, Ray Wood said he was threatened with “pending alcohol trafficking charges” if he didn’t comply with law enforcement’s wishes. 

“On February 21, 1965, I was ordered to be at the Audubon Ballroom, where I was identified by witnesses while leaving the scene,” Ray Wood wrote. “Thomas Johnson was later arrested and wrongfully convicted to protect my cover and the secrets of the FBI and the NYPD.”

At the press conference, Reggie Wood revealed the letter while standing alongside Malcolm X’s children and attorney Benjamin Crump, who called on Vance and members of Congress to investigate the government’s role in the civil rights leader's assassination.

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