The true-crime docuseries on HBO follows Charles Stuart, who murdered his wife and pinned it on a Black man. Murder in Boston: Roots, Rampage, and Reckoning premieres on HBO on Monday, December 4, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
Charles “Chuck” Stuart called 911 34 years ago, stating he and his pregnant wife, Carol, had been shot in their car and left for dead on a dark, empty street in Boston. Cameras for the CBS docudrama Rescue 911 happened to be following Boston’s EMS personnel that night, and we see footage of Chuck Stuart being placed into an ambulance in the opening minutes of HBO’s new true crime documentary Murder in Boston.
“You see who did this?” a police officer inquires. Despite his gunshot wound to the belly, Stuart’s response is unequivocal: “A Black man… Black male.”
That was pretty much the last of Chuck Stuart’s questions. Instead of focusing on his hazy explanation, the Boston Police Department initiated an aggressive pursuit in the city’s largely Black neighbourhoods of Mission Hill and Roxbury, terrorising a community and increasing the city’s simmering racial tensions. (Chuck’s brother Matthew later admitted to police that Chuck murdered Carol, possibly for insurance money.) Murder in Boston: Roots, Rampage, and Reckoning, directed by Jason Hehir (The Last Dance), offers voice to those who have been unjustly victimised by law enforcement and examines the consequences of that traumatic rush to judgement.
Carol Stuart died on October 24, 1989, just one day after Chuck dialled 911. (Her son, Christopher, was born via emergency C-section and lived barely 17 days.) The media, as it had done in the case of the Central Park Jogger six months previously, accepted the police version of events, and the story immediately made national headlines. Murder in Boston depicts the indiscriminate police raids that followed through the eyes of the Black citizens who endured them, using archive news video and interviews with locals. “It was open season on Black people,” says Ron Bell, a Mission Hill native. Dart Adams, novelist and native Bostonian, adds, “When crimes happen in certain parts of Boston, we all fit the description.”
Murder takes a step back in the first of three episodes to examine how Boston’s complex history of race relations — notably, the 1974 school desegregation verdict — revealed a city that was just one inciting incident away from an explosion of deadly animus. Hehir assembles a slew of dramatic archive video, including harsh anti-“forced busing” rallies and TV interviews with white Bostonians whose open, arrogant racism is absolutely frightening, especially for the 1970s. Interviews with students who witnessed the riots, as well as lawyer and activist Ted Landsmark — who was famously beaten by a white student holding an American flag during an anti-busing protest — provide a vivid depiction of the fear and dread that remained so fresh for Black Bostonians in 1989.
Less than a week after Carol’s death, the arrests began. Alan Swanson, a homeless man who happened to own a sweatsuit similar to the one Chuck claimed his assailant was wearing, was the first to arrive. Swanson was never charged, but he was only released when police arrested a second suspect, Willie Bennett, a Mission Hill resident who was caught up in what one observer describes as “a game of telephone in the projects.” Bennett’s nephew, Joey, and his boyhood buddy Dereck Jackson describe how a carefree night at home drinking and “running our mouths” about the Stuart case led in Willie’s arrest for the city’s highest-profile killings in years in the series’ most agonising episode.
Hehir flicks Jackson is listening to an audio recording of his 17-year-old self being probed by police, who he claims forced him to implicate Willie Bennett. Later, Joey Bennett wipes away tears as he watches historical footage of Willie’s mother, Pauline, giving an interview to local TV after police searched her flat for clues. It’s a stark reminder of how difficult it is for trauma like this to heal — if at all. (Willie Bennett was never charged formally. He sued the BPD for civil rights violations in 1993, but the case was dismissed.)
Only one police official who was “directly involved in the Stuart case” agreed to be interviewed for the documentary, according to a disclaimer at the end of Murder in Boston. Unfortunately for the Boston Police Department, that officer, retired detective Bill Dunn, appears to have the same ideas about police in Mission Hill — and the Stuart case in general — that he did when he arrested Alan Swanson more than 30 years ago. “I don’t have any regrets about the way I operated,” Dunn adds. He continues, pointing to his heart, “Everything I did, I did from here.”
It’s unclear whether Hehir and his team attempted to interview any Boston Police officials who were not directly involved in the Stuart case, including Michael Cox, the city’s second Black police commissioner, who could have provided valuable insight into the Department’s failings in 1989 and what changes, if any, were made as a result. Without this context, Murder can only add to the plethora of unresolved issues surrounding the BPD’s clearly botched investigation.
What the series does show, however, is how the Stuart case’s ramifications continue to be felt decades later. “My life’s been f—ed up ever since then,” Willie Bennett says in a recent audio interview done by his daughter Aisha. “I’m still angry.” Viewers will feel the same way after watching Hehir’s series.
Carol Stuart was a woman whose life and tragic story gained public attention in the late 1980s. She was involved in a highly publicized case known as the “Charles Stuart murder case.”
In October 1989, Carol Stuart’s husband, Charles Stuart, claimed that both he and his pregnant wife had been shot by an unknown African-American assailant in the Mission Hill neighborhood of Boston. Charles survived the shooting, but Carol and their unborn child died. The incident prompted a citywide manhunt and increased racial tensions in Boston.
However, the case took a shocking turn when evidence emerged suggesting that Charles Stuart himself was responsible for the murders. It was later revealed that Stuart had staged the crime to collect insurance money and had shot his wife. The discovery led to a significant public outcry, and Stuart eventually committed suicide before he could be arrested.
The case had a lasting impact on public perception and media coverage, highlighting issues related to race, crime reporting, and the trustworthiness of eyewitness testimony. The Stuart case remains a notorious example of a crime that initially fueled racial tensions but later revealed a disturbing truth about the perpetrator.