YONKERS, N.Y. -- Concluding the latest chapter in a tortuous saga of family suffering, Malcolm Shabazz, the 12-year-old grandson of Malcolm X, pleaded guilty yesterday to the juvenile equivalent of second-degree manslaughter for starting a fire that killed his grandmother, Betty Shabazz.
Malcolm's lawyers, Percy Sutton and David N. Dinkins, the former New York City mayor, said after a hearing in Family Court that, in consultation with the boy and his mother, Qubilah Shabazz, they had decided to accept a plea bargain to avoid an intimate description of Malcolm's troubled childhood in open court.
"We were trying to protect this child," Sutton said.
The lawyers also indicated that they wanted to prevent public court sessions in which they would have challenged other charges against the boy. Those charges have not been made public.
In pleading guilty, Malcolm admitted causing the fire but not having intended to cause his grandmother's death. Because of his age, he was not charged as an adult, and Family Court Judge Howard Spitz will have broad discretion in determining what will happen to the boy. A sentencing or disposition hearing, as it is known in Family Court, is scheduled for next Tuesday.
Malcolm faces a maximum sentence of up to 18 months in a juvenile detention facility or a psychiatric hospital, renewable annually until he is 18.
Shabazz, a civil rights advocate and educator who was revered by thousands of people as she carried the mantle of her slain husband, was critically burned in a fire at her apartment on June 1. A few hours after the fire was reported, police found Malcolm wandering dazed in the streets of nearby Mount Vernon, his clothing reeking of gasoline. Shabazz died three weeks later.
In court yesterday, Sutton described this latest wound in a family familiar with tragedy as "one of the most painful days of my life.
"I saw Malcolm X slaughtered," Sutton said. Turning to Malcolm's mother, Qubilah, he added, "I saw her mother in trauma."
With his eyes fixed on Qubilah Shabazz, Sutton said: "This woman was present at the slaughter. This mother never regained a sense of what it is to be in this society. She became a nomad and this was another tragedy."
When asked at a news conference why Malcolm had set the fire, Sutton said he could not "get inside the kid's head."
Asked if the boy had ever apologized, Sutton said that whenever he sees him, Malcolm says, "I loved Mama Betty, and Mama Betty loved me."
Shortly after the fire, police investigators said Malcolm had told them that he was angry at his grandmother because he did not want to live with her and that he wanted to return to his mother, who was living in Texas.
Police never disclosed whether the boy had said he intended to kill his grandmother. In pleading guilty to the equivalents of second-degree manslaughter and second-degree arson, Malcolm admitted having committed acts that caused Shabazz's death, without having intended that outcome.
In court yesterday, Malcolm looked dazed as he walked slowly to the witness stand. Wearing khaki pants, with high-top black sneakers and a white skull cap, emblematic of his Islamic faith, he said he understood that he was waiving his right to a hearing and that he understood the consequences of accepting a plea.
When Barbara Kukowski, a deputy county attorney, asked him if he had intentionally started the fire, he said in a calm voice, "Yes."
She asked, "Did you recklessly cause the death of another person when you knew she was in the apartment and said fire resulted in her death?"
Again, Malcolm, his hands clasped in front of him, answered, "Yes."
And when Kukowski asked him to tell the court in his own words what he did, he tilted his head, looked her in the eyes and, without emotion, said, "Set a fire."
Judge Spitz interrupted him, saying the court had heard enough.
Kukowski then asked Qubilah Shabazz, the only member of the family present, if she understood that her son was pleading guilty to acts that would have been crimes if committed by an adult and if she agreed with her son's plea. Appearing frightened, Shabazz said, "Yes, I am." She looked at Malcolm. He did not return her gaze.
Pub Date: 7/11/97