On October 23, 1989 Charles and Carol Stuart left their childbirth class in Boston. Carol Stuart was murdered that night, and the terrible events that followed were like something out of a Hitchcock mystery. Unfortunately racial tensions still present in our society caused the investigation to veer so far from the truth that a black man was nearly framed for the perfect murder.
Charles Stuart never wanted a child and by the night of the murder he'd taken out a large amount of life insurance for his wife. What really happened that night is that Charles fatally shot his wife. He also shot himself and made it look like the couple had been robbed and then shot by a common criminal. It was the perfect crime if Charles could get away with it. He no longer had the wife and child he didn't want, and would get a boatload of insurance money.
The events that followed spiraled out of control, and had to make everyone take a good hard look at their own attitudes towards race. Stuart described the perpetrator as a black man with about 5'5" 160 pounds with a raspy voice. The story became a national story and an everyday story in the Boston area. A white suburban couple expecting a child was attacked by a black thug. Finding the suspect and convicting him because an obsession. We were all rooting for the police even if they had to question every black man in the city. And they did stop and search every black man within a 10 mile radius of the crime who somewhat met the description given by Stuart. Who cared if their civil liberties were violated. The eyes of the nation were watching. Eventually police settled on a man named Willie Bennett as their criminal suspect, and Stuart picked him out of a lineup. The perfect crime was now set up perfectly with Bennett being charged as the villain. Calls for reinstatement of the death penalty were heard as the case moved towards what everyone wanted to see and believe -- a black thug convicted for the brutal murder of Carol Stuart. The only problem was it wasn't true.
The perfect crime finally fell apart when Charles' brother Matthew when to the police on January 3, 1990 with the story of what he knew was the truth. Charles had shot his wife and himself, and Matthew had taken the gun and other valuables and thrown them in the river. The next day Charles, now the prime suspect, committed suicide by jumping off the Tobin Bridge in Chelsea.
I remember the events unfolding in 1989. How quickly the local news and the newspapers fed the frenzy of finding the black man who committed this awful crime. No one thought anything was wrong with the police stopping and questioning every black man in the area with no evidence whatsoever. No one except the black residents of the neighborhood that is. Everyone was ready to fry Willie Bennett in the electric chair after he became the suspect, long before a trial and even though Massachusetts does not have the death penalty. Convict the guy today, and reinstate the death penalty just for him. This was how we the public would get vindication. I have to think the racially charged climate of Boston fed this frenzy. What if Stuart had fingered a white man? Would the police have been so willing to search every white man in the area. Would the public have cried for the death penalty?
The aftermath of the Stuart case was a mixed bag. The family of Carol Stuart established a foundation to provide scholarships to Mission Hill residents. However, police nor mayor ever formally apologized to residents for their brutal violations of civil liberties in trying to find the black suspect.
Last time I checked, we live in a land where our constitution protects us against unreasonable searches, and we're innocent until proven guilty. Why is it we can abandon our principles in a minute when we're presented with what looks like a suspect to a heinous crime? Why were we so willing to believe everything about Stuart's story when he accused a black guy? Even though we'd made progress on race relations since the civil rights movement, a black guy murdering a white suburban pregnant woman fits right into our framework of racial prejudice. We've got to hope that years later we're not so quick to abandon our principles and that we the public and the press examine everything before we draw conclusions about high profile cases like the Stuart case.