30 years after Stuart case, Boston still healing

DA's office was complicit in wrongs that were done

Thirty years ago, in October 1989, a murder case shook Boston to the core. Charles Stuart and his pregnant wife, Carol DiMaiti Stuart, were shot in the Mission Hill neighborhood after leaving a childbirth class at nearby Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Carol DiMaiti Stuart died within hours, and her son, Christopher, who was delivered two months premature, died 17 days later. Charles Stuart was critically wounded but recovered. Stuart told police the assailant was a black man with a raspy voice, who robbed the couple. The neighborhood was turned upside down by aggressive police sweeps and the interrogation of black men. A black man named Alan Swanson was initially arrested and held for three weeks, and then Mission Hill resident Willie Bennett was arrested and held as the possible shooter. By early January, Stuart’s story fell apart and the truth emerged. Stuart himself had been the assailant, fatally shooting his wife and wounding himself to cover up the crime before handing the gun to his brother who fled before police arrived. Stuart leapt to his death off the Tobin Bridge on January 4, 1990. The case initially drew on race-based fears among whites of urban crime; it wound up standing as one of the most prominent examples of Boston’s long and tortured history of racism. Last week, to mark the 30th anniversary of the case, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins convened a panel discussion and community conversation at Northeastern University to explore the issues raised by the case. Among those taking part were Carl DiMaiti, Carol DiMaiti’s brother, and relatives of Willie Bennett. What follows are the remarks Rollins delivered at the start of the event.

Good evening everyone.

My name is Rachael Rollins and I am the district attorney of Suffolk County.

I want to thank Richard O’Bryant, the director of the Northeastern John D. O’Bryant African American Institute, for his generosity in sponsoring this important event.

I also want to take a moment to acknowledge all of the families that are present today, and those that are not, who were impacted by the trail of violence that started on the evening of October 23, 1989. I know today must be difficult and I thank you for your courage and commitment to our community and this discussion.

Today we are here to have the beginnings of what will be a very difficult conversation. I am fully aware that it might be triggering for some, uncomfortable for most, but also necessary for us all to start, or continue, the painful process of healing.

Today we remember a dark time in our city’s history: the murder of a mother and her child, the assault on a community, the false accusations of black men, the complicity and brutality of law enforcement, including the office I now lead, the amplification of the media and the perpetuation of a lie that caused division, distrust, and injustice.

I understand that we may not want to remember, or revisit, but I believe we must. Even after 30 years, we need to have this discussion; we need to acknowledge the trauma. Only then can we recognize the hurt, betrayal and pain, ultimately allowing the work towards a place of healing to begin.

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins.

When I first announced this event, those who were deeply impacted by the tragedy – the survivors of this violence – expressed how raw the wounds still are. Some talked of a gaping hole left by the murders; others specifically recalled the terror that rained down on a community. All were inflicted by a coward’s violence and his lie.

This isn’t just a recollection of the past removed from the present. The scars are still very fresh today. Some were not ready to have this conversation. We acknowledge and respect how difficult this is.

Today we remember the survivors. Those survivors include several families and the entire Mission Hill community. The brutal murder of Carol and Christopher DiMaiti precipitated a chain of events that created deep trauma beyond one family or one neighborhood. In fact, it left an enormous scar on our entire city.

Let us confront that trauma by recalling the horrific events that started on that evening 30 years ago.

On October 23rd, 1989, a pregnant Carol DiMaiti left a birthing class at Brigham and Women’s Hospital with her husband, Charles Stuart. On her drive home, she was shot.

Despite surgeons’ best efforts, Carol died in the same hospital where she was taking birthing classes just hours earlier. Her premature son, Christopher, died 17 days later.

The real shooter, Carol’s husband, shot himself in the stomach and proceeded to call 911 to report the shooting. He pleaded with a dispatcher for help. He would describe the fictitious gunman as a black man, with a “raspy voice,” wearing a track suit. Charles knew his audience. That lie caught fire and played into the stereotypes often perpetuated by the media. That fire turned into an inferno.

Police officers swarmed Mission Hill in search of the fictitious black suspect – traumatizing, humiliating and assaulting black men of every age. These men and this community continue to carry the scars of that invasion.

The people of Mission Hill – especially black men – were treated like criminals rather than members of a community that, like all of us, are innocent until proven guilty and who the police are allegedly duty bound to protect and serve.

Two black men, first Alan Swanson and later William Bennett, became victims of a lie fueled by racist stereotypes, were wrongfully suspected of the crime. Although they were never officially charged with the homicides, the media charged them in the court of public opinion. The then-Suffolk County district attorney, mayor of Boston, and police commissioner all allowed that vilification and criminalization to continue unchecked. There were even calls to bring back the death penalty.

Unfortunately, when the truth emerged, that Carol’s husband was in fact the shooter, that he shot himself to deflect suspicion, and had completely fabricated the black gunman, the city was shocked.

The victimized black men and the Mission Hill community were not. Unfortunately, they were all too familiar with a justice system that perceived communities of color as infected by violence and responsible for its own prognosis.

The murders of Carol and Christopher DiMaiti were not the cause of racial injustice in Boston; they were a symptom. The lie may have shocked some; but the fact that the city – from the mayor to the DA and police commissioner to the media – believed it, is a tale as old as our nation’s founding.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee noted that: “People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.”

When Carol DiMaiti and her son were killed, people wanted to blame that dangerous black man. They wanted to believe that a white family had been destroyed by the “plagues” of the inner city. They wanted to believe it because they’ve heard it before.

They wanted to believe that the Stuarts were an all-American couple, in love and innocent. In reality, Carol may have been a victim before she was ever shot. People didn’t believe her husband could be an abuser, let alone a murderer because they didn’t want to believe it. These two didn’t fit the mold. She was a lawyer. They were upper-middle class.

“People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.”

Harper Lee may not have been talking about racial injustice or domestic violence, but her words perfectly capture what builds their literal and metaphorical cages.

Charles Stuart’s lie started unraveling in the following months and being the coward he was, he leapt to his death on January 4, 1990. What remained, what he left behind, was a stain – a brand on our city of violence, hatred and racism; of murder, brutality and trauma.

Today’s event is not just one thing because the events that occurred 30 years ago did not just impact one family, or one community. There were many victims. There are many survivors.

Recognizing the role domestic violence played in Carol and Christopher DiMaiti’s deaths does not ignore the racist policies and brutal practices that dominated the aftermath. The traumas do not operate in silos; they do not require us to embrace two separate narratives; the trauma of domestic abuse is compounded by the trauma of racial injustice. If we want to heal, we should acknowledge all wounds. Only then can we stop the bleeding.

Things have changed in the last 30 years, but progress is not an end-result. It’s an evolution. Although we have made progress, we still have so much work to do.

It’s true that people in positions of power – people like me, Police Commissioner Gross and Sheriff Tompkins – are starting to look more and more like the communities we were elected or appointed to serve.

It’s also true that there is no place in our country where black and brown people are more represented than in jails and prisons. We must work for a system that is just for all, not only those with wealth, power, and privilege.

It’s true that women are more financially, politically, and socially independent than the generations that came before them.

It’s also true that 1 in 4 women experience intimate partner violence at some point in their lives. Those women come in all races, socio-economic brackets, ages, nationalities, orientations, and statuses. We must educate ourselves about the complexities of these relationships if we hope to provide an avenue to independence.

We must confront our past in order to build a more just and equitable future.

That’s why today, I’m here to amplify the voices and resources offered by our community partners.

That’s why today, I’m here to say I’m sorry, especially to the Bennett family. Because the truth is, the Suffolk County district attorney’s office was complicit in what happened 30 years ago.

“People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.”

Let’s look to our past so we can ensure it’s not our future. Let’s begin healing by listening. On this 30th anniversary, let’s begin a conversation, and it is my hope, this will be the first of many.

Meet the Author

Rachael Rollins

District Attorney, Suffolk County
Thank you.

Rachael Rollins is the Suffolk County district attorney.