NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Applause erupted Thursday when a judge exonerated Muhammad Aziz and Kahlil Islam, two of the three men convicted of murdering civil rights activist Malcolm X in Washington Heights in 1965.

Aziz and Islam served more than two decades in prison for a crime they did not commit. The Manhattan District Attorney formally asked the court to vacate their convictions after a 22-month investigation, CBS2’s Alice Gainer reported.

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Manhattan DA Cy Vance Jr. apologized to the men, their families and the family of Malcolm X. He acknowledged the FBI and NYPD withheld evidence that would have exonerated the men.

“I apologize on behalf of our nation’s law enforcement for this decades-long injustice, which has eroded public faith in institutions that are designed to guarantee the equal protection of the law. We can’t restore what was taken from these men and their families, but by correcting the record, perhaps we can begin to restore that faith,” said Vance.

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Aziz was glad everyone finally knew the truth.

“I am an 83-year-old man who was victimized by the criminal justice system,” Aziz said. “I hope the same system that was responsible for this travesty of justice also takes responsibility for the immeasurable harm it caused to me.”

The DA’s office reinvestigated the case following the release of the Netflix documentary “Who Killed Malcolm X?” in 2020. They found Aziz and Islam were not involved.

“We now have reports revealing that, on orders from Director J. Edgar Hoover himself, the FBI ordered multiple witnesses not to tell police or prosecutors that they were, in fact, FBI informants,” Vance said.

There was no forensic evidence against Aziz and Islam and contradictory eyewitness statements.

A third man who was convicted and also sentenced to life told the court at trial the other two were not involved. Aziz and Islam were paroled in the 1980s after serving more than 20 years. They maintained their innocence from the beginning.

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“While I do not need a court, prosecutors, or a piece of paper to tell me I am innocent, I am glad that my family, my friends, and the attorneys who have worked and supported me all these years are finally seeing the truth we have all known, officially recognized,” Aziz said.

“I saw the weight lifted off my brother’s shoulders today. I saw the weight lifted, the burden and stigma and the shame of having to walk around as the man who killed Malcolm X,” said Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, the investigator behind the Netflix documentary.

Watch Alice Gainer’s report

Islam died in 2009. His son said it’s hard to accept an apology now.

“There’s too much discomfort, sadness. I mean, imagine growing up worrying about this every, single day of your life as a kid,” said Shahid Johnson. “I was in my mother’s belly when he was taken. So, for 25 years there was not father/son connection, except through visitation rooms.”

While these men can’t get back the decades lost, their names are finally clear.

Malcolm’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz said in a statement, “My young pregnant mother witnessed this horrific killing … Full justice will not be served until all parties … are identified and brought to justice.”

“Justice delayed so far is justice denied, not simply for him but for the family of Malcolm X, too,” State Sen. James Sanders told CBS2’s Dick Brennan.

Vance said every eyewitness who testified in the trial has since died and all physical evidence, including a shotgun used, is gone.

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CBS2’s Dick Brennan contributed to this report, which first appeared on Nov. 18, 2021.

Alice Gainer