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News brief: Malcolm X convictions, Ga. murder trial testimony, 3 amigos summit

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Who killed Malcolm X? The official answer to that question changes today.

NOEL KING, HOST:

That's right. The civil rights leader was assassinated in 1965. He'd just started speaking in the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan when three gunmen opened fire. Now, two of the men who were found guilty of the murder a year later always said they were innocent. And today their convictions will be thrown out.

MARTINEZ: Joining us from New York is NPR's Jasmine Garsd. Jasmine, pretty remarkable turn of events. Walk us through the investigation that led us up to this moment.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: This was a 22-month-long investigation conducted by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, lawyers for the two men and the nonprofit Innocence Project. What they say they found was that back in 1965, both the FBI and the New York Police Department withheld key evidence that would have likely led to Aziz and Islam's acquittal. We're talking about FBI documents that implicated other suspects and pointed away from Islam and Aziz, failure to disclose NYPD files, which revealed that a reporter for the New York Daily News received a call on the morning of the assassination indicating that Malcolm X would be murdered.

MARTINEZ: Fifty years feels like a long time to reopen an investigation. Why did it take that long?

GARSD: Well, investigators had agreed to revisit this case. And then recently, a Netflix documentary about the assassination renewed interest in it. But the conviction of Aziz and Islam was always called into question from Day 1. They were part of the Nation of Islam, which Malcolm X had acrimoniously separated from shortly before his murder. Still, there was no physical evidence that tied Aziz or Islam to the crime scene, let alone to the murder. Both men had credible alibis. Witnesses contradicted each other. This was not at all clear-cut.

MARTINEZ: OK. So Aziz and Islam are exonerated. That mean we're any closer to knowing who did kill Malcolm X?

GARSD: No, it remains unknown. Throughout the years, people pointed to another member of the Nation of Islam who was not arrested. There are also questions about why, if there was knowledge that Malcolm X's life was in danger - and there were undercover law enforcement officials present at the time of the murder - why wasn't anything done to prevent it?

MARTINEZ: It's been more than half a century since the assassination of Malcolm X. I mean, these men spent decades in prison. So what happened to Aziz and Islam?

GARSD: Aziz was released in 1985. He is 83 years old now. Khalil Islam was released in 1987. He died in 2009. Now, they and their families have expressed relief, but they've also acknowledged that the damage done is irreparable. Even after they were released, they were widely seen as Malcolm X's killers. They carried that stigma with them through life.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Jasmine Garsd. Jasmine, thank you very much.

GARSD: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: One of the three men charged with murdering Ahmaud Arbery will be back on the witness stand today.

KING: That's right. Travis McMichael also testified in his own defense yesterday. He says he wants to tell the jury his side of what happened last February.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now from Brunswick, Ga. Debbie, the graphic cellphone video of this killing was central to the prosecution's case. It led to the arrest of the defendants and has many people asking why. What did Travis McMichael say about that?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Well, McMichael testified how he and his father, Greg, armed themselves and went in pursuit of Ahmaud Arbery in a pickup truck after Greg McMichael had seen him running down their street. McMichael said they wanted to question Arbery about neighborhood break-ins because he had seen Arbery a couple of weeks earlier at a home construction site. But Arbery didn't stop. McMichael described turning the truck several times to try to catch up with Arbery as he was running away. He said Arbery looked angry with clenched teeth. Eventually, McMichael got out of his truck with his shotgun, and there was a struggle.

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TRAVIS MCMICHAEL: I shot.

JASON SHEFFIELD: Why?

MCMICHAEL: He had my gun. He struck me. It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he would have got the shotgun from me, then it was a - this was a life-or-death situation.

ELLIOTT: Now, that was his defense attorney, Jason Sheffield, asking the why. And so McMichael's answer is self-defense. Sheffield spent a lot of time asking McMichael about what he said was law enforcement training that he got as a petty officer in the U.S. Coast Guard. His actual job was that of a mechanic.

MARTINEZ: What did the prosecutors focus on in their cross-examination?

ELLIOTT: Well, you know, one thing prosecutor Linda Dunikoski asked him about was that training, in particular whether he was trained on a defendant's rights under the Fifth Amendment.

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LINDA DUNIKOSKI: You learned as part of your time in the military that you can't force people to speak with you.

MCMICHAEL: That's correct.

DUNIKOSKI: OK - and that if someone walks away, you have to let them walk away.

MCMICHAEL: Yes.

ELLIOTT: She asked whether he was making assumptions about neighborhood crime based on rumor, and she got McMichael to admit that he did not call 911 before going in pursuit of Arbery. That call was not made until just moments before Arbery was killed.

MARTINEZ: Debbie, what's the reaction been to McMichael's testimony?

ELLIOTT: Outside the courthouse yesterday, Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, who was in court for some of that testimony, said she really appreciated hearing what McMichael had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WANDA COOPER-JONES: 'Cause it gave the - my family and I some insight on what he was actually thinking. Mr. Travis McMichael killed my son all on assumptions. He had no real facts of where Ahmaud was coming from, what Ahmaud had done. He just took actions into his own hands.

ELLIOTT: The state will continue cross-examination of Travis McMichael today. It's not clear yet whether either of the co-defendants, Greg McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan, will also choose to testify when it comes time for them to present their side of things.

MARTINEZ: You know, there's a sense, Debbie, that this is a test case for racial justice on the national stage. How is that playing there in Brunswick?

ELLIOTT: Well, certainly it's been a theme for activists outside the courthouse, but it's now also figuring prominently in the courtroom. Bryan's attorney, Kevin Gough, has made several motions for mistrials after complaining about his client not getting a fair trial because of, quote, "Black pastors" in the courtroom. Reverend Al Sharpton was there last week, Reverend Jesse Jackson this week, sitting in the gallery with the Arbery family. Gough has argued that that's improper influence on the jury, and the McMichaels' lawyers have agreed and asked for them to be banned from the courtroom. The judge has denied that motion and has actually sort of told the attorney Gough that his comments were reprehensible. Now, today, in part in response to that, more than a hundred clergy are planning a faith march outside the courthouse.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott. Debbie, thanks.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: The leaders of Mexico and Canada will be at the White House today.

KING: President Biden is hosting the first North American Leaders' Summit since 2016. Once upon a time, these were regular gatherings, and then the Trump administration stopped doing them. So the Biden administration is casting this as kind of a fresh start.

MARTINEZ: White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez joins us now. Franco, what's Biden's objective here?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: You know, A, this is a chance for him to reassure two of the most important trade and security partners that they can count on the U.S. Biden's going to meet with each of them privately, and then he will meet with all of them together. The White House wants to put this trilateral relationship back on more solid footing like it once was. You know, the interests in the United States here are really clear. There are significant migration and security issues to be worked out with Mexico, and there's a deep economic relationship with Canada. In a briefing last night, senior administration officials talked about some of the specifics they'll discuss, including a pledge to reduce methane emissions, to share COVID vaccines and to manage migration.

MARTINEZ: Everyone's aware that a lot has happened over the last four years. So how hard do you think it'll be to mend the relationship?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, it won't be easy. There are some real scars left over from Trump's time. The two countries didn't like how Trump forced through the regional trade deal that replaced NAFTA. And in the case of Trudeau, there were personal attacks. I spoke with Benjamin Gedan, who led Latin America policy in the Obama White House. And he told me that President Biden has to build some trust to reassure Canada and Mexico that the U.S. will be a consistent partner going forward.

BENJAMIN GEDAN: These were dynamics that were long taken for granted. But now, after imposing tariffs on steel from Canada and claiming it was necessary for national security not to depend on the Canadians - and these leaders are left with the impression that the United States is not the ally that it once was.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Gedan went on to tell me that, you know, this is similar to what Biden had to do in Europe, you know, his America is back campaign.

MARTINEZ: What issues do you expect Mexico and Canada to raise with the president?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I expect some talk about respect and sovereignty. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said he'll ask Biden for his support so that undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. have a chance to adjust their legal status. Also, both Canada and Mexico are concerned about U.S. proposals to offer tax credit for electric vehicles but only for cars made in the U.S. with union labor. One of their concerns, basically, is that Biden wants to work with them on U.S. priorities, but that he's less interested in working together on what's important to them.

MARTINEZ: Anything new you'll be watching for?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, Biden is under pressure at home because of rising inflation, of course. He has talked a lot about fixing supply chains. These allies would say it can be an integrated effort. To that end, the senior administration officials said on the call that they'll start a North American supply chain working group. The reality is, as Biden has looked to bring more manufacturing to the United States, Mexico and Canada, though, have grown more worried about a rise in protectionism. So I'm going to be watching to see how Trudeau and Lopez Obrador talk about supply chains and whether they raise concerns about the U.S. becoming more protectionist.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Franco Ordoñez, thanks a lot.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.