Temujin Kensu’s exoneration quest wins support from Khaliah Ali

Muhammad Ali’s daughter says fighting for the Michigan man’s freedom honors her father

May 4, 2023 at 12:00 pm
click to enlarge Temujin Kensu and Khaliah Ali. - Courtesy photos
Courtesy photos
Temujin Kensu and Khaliah Ali.

Decades have passed since Temujin Kensu last sat with his granddad, Carl, enjoying Wide World of Sports. The popular ABC broadcast that first aired in the 1960s often featured a young, brash boxer named Cassius Clay, later known to the world as Muhammad Ali, playfully sparring with commentator Howard Cosell.

“‘Howard, if I was to hit you just one time your grandchildren would feel it!’” Kensu says, performing his throatiest, cockiest Ali impression. “I would just roar as a kid and I’d watch it with my grandfather, who has passed away and was my best friend, and those are just amazing memories.”

Then just a boy in Flint still known as Fredrick Freeman, long before converting to Buddhism, Kensu couldn’t have predicted he’d spend his 60th birthday in prison this month — like every birthday since his 24th — for a murder he denies committing.

Kensu also had no way of knowing that Khaliah Ali, a daughter of the legendary fighter he admired, would become one of his fiercest allies. She recently announced plans to visit Kensu, who is widely regarded as the casualty in one of America’s most egregious wrongful convictions, before he turns 60 at Macomb Correctional Facility May 23.

“My father was an unapologetic force for what was good and what was right,” Khaliah Ali exclusively tells Metro Times. “He loved people.”

She adds, “This is exactly what he would be doing if he was still here, advocating for the disenfranchised in a way that was true to who he was.” Ali died in 2016.

A published author, health advocate, and humanitarian, Khaliah Ali adds her name to a wide array of well-regarded public officials and private citizens — ranging from current and former Michigan Supreme Court justices, a former FBI agent, a retired police detective, state and federal legislators, and multiple private investigators — all of whom say Kensu should be exonerated in Scott Macklem’s 1986 killing. Kensu insists that he was in bed with his girlfriend at their home near Escanaba, Michigan, at the time of Macklem’s fatal shooting about 400 miles away, in the St. Clair County Community College parking lot in Port Huron.

But despite multiple alibi witnesses, including the girlfriend who wasn’t called to testify, a jailhouse informant and a drug-addicted lawyer helped influence the guilty verdict. The informant later recanted testimony that Kensu had confessed to the crime, but Kensu was left to serve a life sentence without parole. His only known connection to Macklem, son of the mayor of Croswell, Michigan, was that they dated the same woman at different times, says Kensu, who took two polygraphs supporting his innocence.

Kensu’s growing list of advocates, including observers as far away as Europe, encourages him, but he says meeting the fifth child of Muhammad Ali will be a highlight of his life. Jason Flom, a justice advocate and one-time major record label executive who recently teamed with Khaliah Ali, offered to let Kensu speak with her during a phone call that sparked ongoing communication.

When Ali offered that she was sorry for Kensu’s plight, “I just started bawling like a baby,” he says. “All that tough inmate stuff went out the window.”

He adds, “I just felt, like, this compassion coming off of her in waves.”

An “enormous Muhammad Ali fan,” Kensu has been a martial artist since childhood, noting that another hero, martial arts icon Bruce Lee, sought out Ali when Lee studied boxing.

Support from Flom, who has interviewed Kensu for Flom’s wide-reaching Wrongful Conviction podcast, is also tremendously valued, adds Kensu. Flom’s roles as chairman of Atlantic Records, Virgin Records, and Capitol Music Group helped launch the careers of Katy Perry and Twisted Sister, among others, before Flom went on to persuade Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to grant numerous prison commutations and clemencies.

click to enlarge Khaliah Ali (far left) and record exec-turned-criminal justice advocate Jason Flom (far right). - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Khaliah Ali (far left) and record exec-turned-criminal justice advocate Jason Flom (far right).

“Kensu’s a special guy,” says Flom. “He’s amazingly upbeat. Every conversation starts with him asking, ‘How are you doing? Is there anything I can do for you?’”

Decades after the conviction, still-unanswered questions about the case leave Flom convinced of Kensu’s innocence, Flom says. For example, what Kensu supporters call the “phantom flight” theory — in which a prosecutor suggested Kensu could have chartered a private jet to Port Huron, killed Macklem, and flown back home — was never proven.

“Unless I’m missing something, I still don’t think you can be in two places at one time,” Flom adds. “I’m not a firearms expert, but the last time I checked you can’t shoot a bullet from 400 miles away. It’s fucking ridiculous. It’s a ridiculous situation. It would be laughable if it were in a movie script. The director would say, ‘Take that out.’”

Flom and Khaliah Ali have been actively collaborating for about four months, including an April trip to Phoenix where they met a group of 335 exonerees who’d served a combined total of nearly 6,000 years in prison. While Flom says the reality of wrongful convictions is creeping into mainstream America’s consciousness, Khaliah Ali welcomes attention for anyone who might imagine her as an uninformed celebrity, leveraging her last name.

“I invite what you might call opposition,” she says. “I call it opportunity.”

Admirers of her father might not recall that he was active in cases such as the wrongful conviction of fellow boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, or that Ali himself was imprisoned for refusing to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. She adds: “If he didn’t have the name and power behind him, who knows how that would have ended?”

Almost a year after the Michigan Innocence Clinic requested that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer grant Kensu clemency, a decision is pending, but the governor’s office did not respond to Metro Times’ request for an update. Kensu wants Whitmer to take note of Flom’s and Khaliah Ali’s advocacy.

“I’m hoping the governor sees them for who they are, and that this is who I am, too,” he says. “I’d like others to know how amazing it is that people like Khaliah and Jason are out here fighting for us.”

Adds Khaliah Ali: “I’m not gonna take my teeth out of it. I’m in it until the end. He’s coming home.”

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