Charles Stuart case’s awful legacy, in black and white
Ours is a city rightly obsessed with its history, but absolutely no one has ever felt any nostalgia for Oct. 23, 1989.
That was the night, 25 years ago this week, Carol DiMaiti Stuart was murdered in Mission Hill on her way home from a childbirth class at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Her husband, Charles Stuart, attempted to pin the blame for the heinous act on an unidentified black gunman, and for a while a lot of Boston bought it. That deception ended the next January when Stuart jumped to his death off the Tobin Bridge, shortly after his younger brother, Matthew, identified him as the real killer.
The murder and subsequent investigation touched every raw nerve in racially sensitive Boston. In the wake of the murder, black men and boys were searched without warning in Mission Hill. Mayor Raymond Flynn infamously (and uncharacteristically) branded the unknown killer as “an animal.”
For a time, the blame for the murder settled on a Mission Hill resident named Willie Bennett. On the flimsiest of evidence — no evidence, really — Bennett’s life was changed forever, his name inextricably linked with one of this city’s most horrific crimes.
Matthew Stuart’s life was also changed; after identifying his brother as the killer, he fell into a life of petty crimes and brushes with the court system. He died a broken man, in a homeless shelter in 2011.
Matthew Stuart’s death made Bennett the last living major figure in the case, so back then I spoke to Bennett and some of his relatives. Not surprisingly, Bennett was not feeling sentimental. In fact, he was not even aware that Stuart had died.
“I really don’t care,” he said. “It hurts to talk about it. What good does it do me?”
His family was more willing to share their reactions. They expressed sympathy for Matthew Stuart, whose disclosure about his brother’s guilt cleared Bennett.
But their wounds were also raw. Bennett’s niece, who was 8 in 1989, recalled the trauma of watching police search her grandmother’s house, and the chaos that gripped the neighborhood. Willie Bennett was never charged.
“People always ask me if I’m Willie Bennett’s niece,” Sharita Bennett told me. “People always have something to say about it.”
This week I tried again to find Willie Bennett. No success.
Over the years, there have been many calls to “learn the lessons of the Stuart case.” But I’m not sure the city ever reached a consensus on what exactly those lessons were. I believe it inspired a bit more skepticism in reporting the official version of major crimes.
Certainly, there was soul-searching about racial justice. That it had initially been so easy to frame a black man— any black man — for murder was worrisome, to say the least.
And of course it was yet another black eye for a city that had already been branded racially intolerant during the 1970s battle over school desegregation. The Stuart case reinforced every idea about Boston that reasonable people were hoping to bury. That burial frankly remains a work in progress.
Since 1989, few neighborhoods have changed as much as Mission Hill. Then a community of working-class families, it has since become a stronghold of college students. Many Mission Hill residents weren’t even alive in 1989.
But the case is still an open wound for some. “When people think of Mission Hill, they think of the Stuart case,” said political organizer Ron Bell, who grew up there. “There are a lot of great things about it, but that story is not told.”
Charles Stuart’s leap to his death ended the criminal case but not the story. Part of his deeply dishonorable legacy was forcing the city to look deeply at issues of black and white. That self-examination has proved to be uncomfortable, unending — and still essential.