After spending over 40 years in prison, the man started living in Brooklyn, on the opposite side of the city from the ballroom where he participated in the assassination that changed his life — and the lives of the innocent men convicted with him.
Waiting in the holding area of a New York City courthouse in 1966, Talmadge Hayer turned to the two men who were standing trial with him. He told them that he intended to confess to his role in the assassination of Malcolm X and make it clear that they were innocent.
“I just want to tell the truth, that’s all,” he said when he took the stand.
But the jury was not convinced. Hayer had told a different story earlier in the trial, and he still refused to name his co-conspirators or say who they were working for. Eleven days later, the jury convicted all three men of first-degree murder.
The other two men, known then as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, went down in history with Hayer as the assassins of an icon of the Civil Rights era. It would take 55 years to clear their names, and Johnson would not live to see his exoneration.
The convictions of Butler and Johnson, who, while in prison changed their names to Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam, were thrown out in that same Manhattan courthouse last week after a 22-month review of the case.
But long before the new investigation that led to the exonerations, Mujahid Abdul Halim — the name that Hayer later chose — had insisted on the men’s innocence in an effort to set the record straight and to atone in some way for his role in a hugely consequential act of violence.
Halim was released on parole in 2010. Now 80, he lives quietly in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, about 5 miles away from the courthouse that linked him inextricably to the two innocent men.
He appears to keep a low profile. His name and a years-old photo of him were not recognised at a nearby Muslim community center and mosques in the area. At a barbershop, pharmacy and deli on Halim’s block, workers said they did not know him. And his wife said at their apartment that Halim was reluctant to be interviewed.
“I don’t know why he wouldn’t want to,” she said. “But I think there’s a lot of people that really still feel differently about some things and maybe even about him.”
Two days earlier, a man answering to Halim’s name had responded only briefly to the news that Aziz and Islam would have their convictions thrown out.
“God bless you, they’re exonerated,” he said through a closed door.
Halim was 23, a follower of the Black nationalist group the Nation of Islam and a member of its Newark, New Jersey, mosque in 1964, when, he said in an affidavit years later, two men brought him into their car on a street in downtown Paterson, New Jersey, to discuss killing Malcolm X.
Malcolm X had spent 12 years in the Nation of Islam, rising rapidly to its top ranks as it expanded. But in 1964, fissures between him and the sect’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, widened into a messy split. Muhammad privately seemed to imply that he should be executed, according to FBI files. And two months before the killing, Minister Louis Farrakhan wrote in the Nation’s official newspaper that Malcolm, his former mentor, was worthy of death.
So when Halim was approached in Paterson, his deep religious zeal led him to believe he was being tested, he told Peter Goldman, a journalist who interviewed him in prison for a biography of Malcolm X.
“I just believed, man. And I was the type of person that if I had to stand up for what I believe, I would do it,” Halim told Goldman.
In an affidavit, Halim recalled the planning of the assassination.
“We met a few times to discuss how to carry out this killing,” he wrote. “Sometimes we talked while driving around.”
In the affidavit, he also identified the other men he said were involved in the plot: Leon Davis, Benjamin Thomas and two men whose full names he did not know, “William X” and a man who went by “Wilbur or Kinly.”
They decided against targeting the civil rights leader’s home, which was heavily guarded, and settled instead on the Audubon Ballroom in uptown Manhattan, casing it the night before the assassination.
On February 21, 1965, as Malcolm X was about to deliver a speech at the ballroom outlining a new anti-racist movement focused on Black empowerment, Halim was one of three men who rose after a brief distraction and opened fire. In the chaos that followed, Halim was shot in the leg and apprehended.
The other shooters, including the man who fired the fatal shotgun blast, escaped; within 10 days, Aziz and Islam, Nation of Islam enforcers who were out on bail on charges that they had beaten up a defector from the group, were arrested. (None of the co-conspirators whom Halim identified later were ever charged with the crime, and all are believed to be dead.)
Even as the trial approached, Halim did not expect his co-defendants to be found guilty.
“I actually felt that the brothers would be cut loose,” he said years later in a prison interview with journalist Tony Brown. “I didn’t think they were going to be convicted until this trial started going on, and it became obvious what was being done. And at that point I had to say something.”
It did not matter.
Despite Halim’s statement, the testimony of alibi witnesses, and a complete lack of physical evidence tying Aziz and Islam to the shooting, the ballroom or each other, they were convicted along with him.
Halim continued to call for the exoneration of his co-defendants in the years that followed. In 1977, he wrote the affidavit in which he again said the men were innocent and identified the other assassins.
In another affidavit, the next year, he provided more detail about his recruitment into the assassination plot and the plan itself, saying he hoped the additional statements “will clear up any doubt as to what took place in the killing of Malcolm X and the innocence of Norman Butler and Thomas Johnson.”
But just as his testimony had been ignored, the affidavits failed to accomplish their purpose. Aziz and Islam’s motion to wipe out their convictions was denied by a judge, Harold Rothwax, who was known for his hard-line approach to defendants.
In prison, the weight of what he had done appeared to crash down on Halim, according to the independent historian Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, who has studied Malcolm X’s life and death for more than 30 years and hosted a Netflix documentary series on the assassination.
After Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam leader, died in 1975, his son, Warith Deen Mohammed, began instructing his followers in a new set of beliefs, including ideas about the afterlife, while simultaneously restoring Malcolm X’s good name. At that point, the historian said, Halim became concerned about the state of his soul.
“He had a complete breakdown in prison because he had been holding it down on a pack of lies,” Abdur-Rahman Muhammad said. “He took a man’s life over a lie.”
Goldman said in an interview last week that he had been struck by what he felt was Halim’s sincere penitence.
“It’s hard for me to say I liked a murderer, particularly the murderer of a man I so respected,” Goldman said. “But that’s where I ended up.”
Goldman, who is friends with Aziz, said that Aziz, too, had forgiven Halim for his role in the murder that led to the wrongful conviction, in part because of the affidavits and in part for religious reasons. Aziz had referred to his former co-defendant, Goldman said, as having “an innocent heart.” (Aziz is not granting interviews.)
Halim spent more than 40 years in prison. He received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in sociology and participated in a work-release program that allowed him to spend much of the week outside prison.
For a time, Halim worked at the Manhattan Psychiatric Center on Wards Island and at a Steak’N’Take fast food restaurant. He was released in 2010 and has lived in Brooklyn since, on the opposite side of the city from the Audubon Ballroom where he participated in the assassination that changed his life — and the lives of the innocent men convicted with him.
“He doesn’t want to ever appear to be benefiting from what he did,” said the historian, Muhammad. “That’s why he doesn’t do interviews. He is genuinely trying to save his soul from the hellfire, and he doesn’t want to benefit at all from what he did. He’s ashamed of what he did.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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