Boston’s Legacy of Racist Policing & Media Coverage of Crime: 30 Years after Chuck Stuart

Houston Institute
Oct 30, 2019 · 10 min read

This article was adapted from a thread we posted on twitter on October 23, 2019.

30 years ago today, on October 23, 1989, Carol DiMaiti Stuart was murdered by her husband, Chuck Stuart. He falsely accused a Black man of the crime. The City of Boston has never reckoned or repaired the harm done to its Black communities in its wake.

In the days after the murder, from October 24 through 28, there were upward of 150 “stop and frisk” searches in Mission Hill per day. Black men throughout the city described public strip searches and repeated interrogations. “We were all suspects.

The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office focused exclusively on Black suspects. With 100 extra officers in Mission Hill, Roxbury, and Mattapan, Boston Police led a campaign of terror against Black men. And the media stoked the flames of racial animus.

Two days after the murder, as the Boston Police Department continued targeting and harassing Black men and boys in Mission Hill, then-DA Newman Flanagan called for the death penalty to be reinstated in MA for this case. No suspect had been identified, but it was “justifie[d]” for such “vicious criminals.”

Headline and news story in the Boston Herald on October 25, 1989

We note that 1989 was the same year Donald Trump notoriously took out a full-page ad in the New York Daily News calling for “bring[ing] back the death penalty” in another famous case of wrongful accusations leveled against Black boys: the Central Park Jogger case, now more commonly known as The Exonerated Five.

Meanwhile, as the racially motivated Stuart investigation proceeded with unlawful policing of Black men and boys, “the veneration of Charles Stuart continued unabated. First responders who worked to save his life praised his concern for his wife’s well-being.

A Boston Globe editorial lauded Stuart’s “gallant calls for help.”

The Boston Herald invoked “Camelot.”

Armed with unlawful, dragnet tactics, subject to no authority, and deputized to scour neighborhoods while protected by a racist mythology, police ensnared many innocent people. One defense attorney, Leslie Harris, told the Boston Globe in January 1990 that kids were told to “come take a ride,” then intimidated into making statements.

Alan Swanson, 29, was the first man falsely accused and prosecuted in connection with the Stuart murder. Mr. Swanson was jailed for three weeks during this ordeal. He was homeless, discovered in an abandoned apartment; arrested for burglary; that charge was reduced to trespass; and ultimately he was acquitted. Unwilling to let him go as a suspect, the DA’s office brought a new concocted charge of robbery, which was dismissed when the accuser admitted police pressured him into making an accusation against Swanson.

Excerpt from “The Murder that Ravaged Boston” by Jim Naughton in The Washington Post (Jan. 8, 1990)

The next man wrongfully targeted was William ‘Willie’ Bennett. Bennett was arrested in November for a motor vehicle violation and subsequently charged with a video store robbery. Media identified him as the chief suspect in the Stuart murder case. Stuart tentatively identified him in a lineup.

Excerpt from “The Murder that Ravaged Boston” by Jim Naughton in The Washington Post (Jan. 8, 1990)

But by early January, Stuart’s brother Matthew came forward when he realized Chuck had fingered Bennett for the crime, and that another man would be charged for a murder he hadn’t committed. Matthew Stuart knew the truth, and had helped his brother by dumping a bag into a river.

Matthew Stuart admitted his suspicions to police and divulged his role in disposing of the bag and gun (and perhaps connection to insurance payouts). Shortly thereafter, Chuck Stuart committed suicide, abandoning his car on the Tobin Bridge and jumping into the river.

But by that point, for Bennett, the damage had been done. His family was tormented, his life upended, and he had been jailed and wrongfully accused of murder. Mayor Flynn apologized to the Bennett family in a brief home visit. In 1995, Bennett sued the Boston Police Department for civil rights violations.

Mr. Bennett’s family continues to be tormented by this period. As the Equal Justice Initiative recounted when marking October 25, 1989 on its calendar of “Racial Injustice” events, “[i]n 2014, William Bennett’s niece recalled the trauma of watching police search her grandmother’s house as an eight-year-old child and the fear and chaos that gripped the neighborhood during the intense police crackdown targeting black men and boys.”

In an interview in 2017, Mr. Bennett described the continuing devastating effects this accusation and prosecution had on his life: “Bennett says he is still angry about being wrongfully considered a suspect in the Stuart case and he is bitter that he was never compensated for all he went through.”

In February 1990, Harvard Law School and the Boston Association of Black Journalists hosted “The Media’s Role in the Charles Stuart Murder Case.” Professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., conducted a cross examination of a table of Boston’s almost all-white newspaper editors & news directors. It was broadcast by C-SPAN. The full video is available to screen here:

One of the key points made repeatedly by Professor Ogletree was that news media gave full, detailed context to the lives of the white victims in the Stuart case and ran nonstop coverage. By contrast, the Boston Globe estimated out of 100 shootings in Roxbury and Dorchester that year, maybe 20 received attention in the pages of the Globe. At one moment, Professor Ogletree highlighted comparative indifference to violence in Black communities, dismissed by one news director as “war zone type of crime.”

“Does it make it less newsworthy when the shooter and the victim happen to be Black?” — Professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr.

On this 1990 panel, then-News Director of WCVB-TV, Emily Rooney, said that incidents of violence in Black communities were not treated with the same attention and coverage as the Stuart case because “we expect them to happen there.”

Another prescient comment came from Tom Morgan, then-President of the National Association of Black Journalists, who problematized the media’s “reliance on the truth to actually come from the police,” even when police weren’t “totally forthcoming in the information that they give to the press.”

The News Director of WGBH News, Alan Foster, questioned whether covering crime is sensationalizing by nature and whether covering crime is indeed “news” if the coverage doesn’t bring any understanding to the public, or explain what’s going on in a community.

Professor Ogletree also questioned why media played into the “Willie Horton angle of it,” the fear that something happened that could happen to anyone, tinged with racism that suggests uncontrollable crime and violence in Black communities in Boston:

The Managing Editor for the Bay State Banner criticized — to applause — how though the murder happened in Mission Hill, because it was crime-involved, the press said Roxbury; the media loosely used terms like ‘war-zone’ and ‘drug-plagued neighborhoods’ to sharpen and reinforce the stereotype-based link between race and crime.

He also questioned the Boston Herald’s use of the term ‘Black Leaders’ to describe community members concerned about the policing and prosecutions, noting that the Herald would never use the term ‘White Leaders.’

In 1991, U.S. Attorney Wayne Budd, the top federal prosecutor for Boston, issued a report on the policing and investigation surrounding the Stuart case. As the Washington Post reported:

Boston police resorted to threatening and coaching witnesses, cursing and intimidating civilians and planting drugs on potential witnesses as they hunted a suspect in the 1989 shooting death of Carol Stuart, according to a report by the federal prosecutor here.

U.S. Attorney Wayne Budd stopped short of pressing charges, citing “a lack of admissible evidence,” but he urged Police Commissioner Francis Roache to consider disciplinary action against several officers.

The review did not cite cases of police violence against civilians. Instead, it focused on a pattern of “misconduct” that included “coercion and intimidation . . . through the use of actual or implied threats of arrest, imprisonment and physical beatings.”

Excerpt from p. 94 of the book “White Racism: The Basics” (by Joe R. Feagin et al., 2001)

In a parallel investigation by the Massachusetts Attorney General, the state found a broad pattern of civil rights violations in the stop and frisk tactics, witness intimidation, and coerced confessions by police during the Stuart investigation. But, like U.S. Attorney Budd, Attorney General Shannon declined to bring legal action against the Boston Police Department.

Article in the December 19, 1990 Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Community leaders called for the resignations of Police Commissioner Francis Roache and Suffolk County District Attorney William Flanagan; a formal apology from Mayor Raymond Flynn; as well as structural changes including a civilian review board to monitor the police department. None of those demands were realized.

The murder of Carol DiMaiti Stuart was a horrifying tragedy, a premeditated crime of intimate partner violence. 30 years later, her family undoubtedly still grieves that profound, unsettling loss. 30 years later, we all must reckon with the ways this incident continues to shape Boston.

In August after a fight erupted between a corrections officer & people on the street near South Bay jail, the Boston Police engaged in a self-described “clean sweep” “operation” of the area. Media outlets printed un-corroborated statements from city officials & law enforcement.

6 weeks later, reporter Jerome Campbell for WBUR revealed that statements made by Police Commissioner William Gross and Mayor Marty Walsh at the time weren’t accurate. But witness accounts that circulated on social media, and press releases issued by the Boston Police Department, should have already called into question the public narrative of the arrests.

Has policing changed? Data on Boston stops and frisks, and the gang database, show astronomical racial disparities.

Just two weeks ago, Boston Police were accused of racial profiling by a witness who filmed a stop and arrest of a young Black man in Jamaica Plain, who could be heard on video repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe,” with police responding “You can breathe” and telling him to get on the ground and “stop fighting.” [The video, originally posted publicly on twitter, has since been made private.]

That kind of aggressive policing was also recalled by concerned civil rights leaders at the Statehouse on October 23rd during a press conference about traffic enforcement and racial profiling. Former Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson spoke of his experience being profiled in his Mission Hill community during the Stuart investigation. At age 14, five times he was stopped in public, told to drop his pants, searched. The Boston Police made hundreds of illegal searches every day for days on end. Indeed, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that black men may flee police to avoid the “recurring indignity of being racially profiled.”

30 years ago, Boston readily embraced the weaponization of racism for white victimhood. But blending racism, law enforcement, and media coverage never dissipated. From everyday policing to #OperationCleanSweep; from racial slurs at Roxbury Prep to sensationalized crime reports.

In January, we’ll join with Families for Justice as Healing and other concerned community members for a public event to mark this 30th anniversary and renew conversations on how this incident’s harm continues; how city leaders can shift practices; and what recognition, reckoning, or reparations Boston may owe to its Black communities.

Houston Institute

The Houston Institute serves as a critical bridge between scholarship, law, policy and practice and is well-positioned to bring together critical players from many spheres to devise and implement research-based solutions and remedies.

Houston Institute

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#communityjustice

Houston Institute

The Houston Institute serves as a critical bridge between scholarship, law, policy and practice and is well-positioned to bring together critical players from many spheres to devise and implement research-based solutions and remedies.

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