New York’s criminal justice system took 55 years to acknowledge that it had wrongly branded Muhammad A. Aziz as one of Malcolm X’s killers.
Now, he and the city are at loggerheads over how much it should pay for the two decades he spent imprisoned after his conviction for murder in March 1966, one year after assassins cut down a towering figure of the civil rights era.
Lawyers for Mr. Aziz, 84, filed a civil rights lawsuit on Thursday seeking $40 million from the city for its role in a notorious verdict that was vacated last year after the Manhattan district attorney apologized in court for illegal conduct by the police and prosecutors who handled the case.
The complaint, filed in federal court in Brooklyn, signaled the breakdown of settlement negotiations between the city comptroller and Mr. Aziz. It is the start of what could be a lengthy legal battle that his lawyers worry might outlive him. A co-defendant, Khalil Islam, died in 2009, a cloud still over him.
The convictions were “the result of outrageous government misconduct and violations of their constitutional rights,” said David Shanies, a lawyer for Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam’s estate. “These men and their families should not be delayed compensation for the gross injustices they suffered.”
Mr. Aziz was a 26-year-old married father of six young children when he was convicted in 1966 of first-degree murder in the killing of Malcolm X, who was about to embark on a new phase of his career following a bitter break from the Nation of Islam, a Black nationalist group. Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam were condemned despite a lack of physical evidence, conflicting statements from prosecution witnesses, and a third defendant taking the witness stand to confess to his role and to proclaim the two other men’s innocence.
In court papers, Mr. Aziz’s lawyers accused the New York Police Department and the Manhattan district attorney’s office of withholding evidence that supported his claim of innocence, using eyewitness procedures that were suggestive, and coercing witnesses to give false testimony — echoing investigative findings that led to his exoneration. Twenty-four former officers are named in the complaint.
“He spent 20 years, during what should have been the prime of his life, locked in prison for a crime he did not commit,” the lawyers said in court papers. “The damage done to Mr. Aziz and his family was immense and irreparable.”
The lawsuit’s filing makes the city’s Law Department, led by Sylvia Hinds-Radix, the corporation counsel, the main agency considering redress for Mr. Aziz, rather than Comptroller Brad Lander’s office. Representatives for the comptroller and the Law Department did not immediately respond to the lawsuit.
Mr. Shanies filed a separate claim Thursday for the estate of Mr. Islam, who was exonerated posthumously in the same proceedings last year. Mr. Islam, who was imprisoned for 22 years before his release, died in 2009 at age 74, still fighting to clear his name.
Mr. Aziz previously filed a lawsuit against New York State that was settled for $5 million in April, according to a court filing. Mr. Islam’s estate expects a similar agreement.
In December, Mr. Shanies filed notices of claim with the city on behalf of the men and their families. The step is required under state law that is aimed at giving the parties time to negotiate a resolution rather than battling in court.
Victims of wrongful convictions who have their cases overturned often sue for redress, with payments varying from several thousand dollars to tens of millions.
In May, the city agreed to pay $7 million to Grant Williams, a studio worker for the rap group Wu-Tang Clan, who spent 23 years in prison before he was cleared last year of charges that he killed a man in 1996 on Staten Island. Two other men, Amaury Villalobos and William Vasquez, received $31 million in 2017 after a court overturned their conviction on charges that they set a fire in 1980 that killed a woman and her five children.
In 2014, five men exonerated in the beating and rape of a female jogger in 1989 in Central Park agreed to settle their lawsuit against the city for $41 million — roughly $1 million for each year they each spent in jail.
All were aided by district attorneys’ offices joining a national trend of prosecutors setting up units devoted to reviewing old cases. Like the original wrongful convictions, undoing them has had a disproportionate impact on Black defendants, who are more likely than their white counterparts to be victims of official misconduct.
Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam’s case was singular in its historic importance, and for the admission of wrongdoing by one of the nation’s most powerful local prosecutors on behalf of his office and the Police Department.
But it was also notable because serious historians of law enforcement and the civil rights era had insisted for decades that the convictions were a miscarriage of justice. Some went as far as to publicly name men who they believe were the true assassins.
Calls for Congress, the F.B.I. and the Manhattan district attorney to reopen the case were ignored. In the official record, the case is now unsolved.
The former Manhattan district attorney, Cy Vance Jr., agreed to re-examine the case in 2020 before the release of a Netflix documentary piecing together an alternate theory of the case.
Mr. Vance, before he stepped down at the end of last year, stood in front of dozens of onlookers in the courthouse where the men were convicted and asked a judge to vacate the verdicts. He apologized on behalf of the police and prosecutors “for what were serious, unacceptable violations of law and public trust.”