Malcolm Shabazz, the 12-year-old grandson of Malcolm X, was characterized on Tuesday in Family Court as a profoundly disturbed youngster with a history of setting fires and psychotic episodes dating to early childhood but no conscious intention of harming his grandmother when he set the fire that killed her.
A portrait of a boy suffering from severe mental illness emerged on Tuesday, detail by detail, in testimony by a psychologist, a psychiatrist and a probation officer. The three described 2-year-old Malcolm’s attacking his mother in fights that left them both bloodied, setting his sneakers on fire in the middle of the night as a 3-year-old, spending time in a mental institution at the age of 9 because he was seeing things and later inventing an imaginary friend called Sinister Torch.
While the mental health professionals labeled the boy both psychotic and schizophrenic, diagnoses that his lawyers, Percy Sutton and David Dinkins, had tried to keep private in an unsuccessful effort to bar reporters from the courtroom, their testimony put to rest the idea that the 12-year-old had willfully set out to kill his grandmother, Dr. Betty Shabazz.
“I do not believe he consciously meant to do harm to his grandmother,” said Dr. Elizabeth Osborn, a clinical psychologist hired by the prosecution. “I believe it was an unconscious act to scare her, make her change, get her to do what he wanted,” which apparently was to surrender custody of the boy to his mother, herself a woman with a history of mental illness, drug abuse and problems with the law.
Tuesday’s observations, diagnoses and recommendations were provided by Osborn, who has written extensively on chronic fire setters; Dr. Don Heacock, a well-known child psychiatrist, and Joseph DeCarlo, a Westchester County probation officer. All have reviewed the boy’s psychiatric records, spoken to his mother, Qubilah Shabazz, and interviewed Malcolm, who has been in a juvenile detention center since the June 1 fire.