Could troubling police, media response to Stuart murder happen again?

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Could troubling police, media response to Stuart murder happen again?

JFK Forum panel discuss “Race, Police and the Media."

IOP Director Setti Warren (from left), Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Boston Globe reporter Elizabeth Koh, Globe editors Brendan McCarthy and Adrian Walker during the “Race, Police and the Media in America” discussion.

Photo by Scott Eisen

February 29, 2024

5 min read

Reporters who revisited 35-year-old case that reignited racial tensions in Boston say Black community sees no reason why it couldn’t

On the night of Oct. 23, 1989, Charles “Chuck” Stuart shot and killed his pregnant wife, Carol, and wounded himself. Police officers found the white suburban couple in their blue Toyota Cressida in the predominantly Black and Latinx Mission Hill neighborhood. Stuart told them a Black gunman had carjacked them.

Initially, the police, the media, and much of the public believed Stuart. The ensuing investigation and manhunt heightened racial tensions in the city — which had exploded during 1974 court-mandated busing to integrate Boston public schools — and unleashed a wave of police brutality against Black residents.

Two Black men were wrongly named as suspects, and Stuart ended up killing himself after his brother Matthew told police “Chuck” had planned his wife’s murder to collect insurance money. The Stuart murder left the Mission Hill community shaken even decades later, and with questions about what had happened and why.

“After Chuck realized his brother had turned him in, he drove to the top of the Tobin Bridge and jumped, and it left a lot of questions behind and a lot of soul-searching,” said Boston Globe investigative reporter Elizabeth Koh during a talk, “Race, Police, and the Media in America,” on Tuesday evening at the Harvard Kennedy School. “A lot of those questions never really had been answered and the trauma that has been left behind, especially in Mission Hill, had never really been addressed.”

Koh is part of a team of Globe journalists who set themselves the task of taking a closer look and exploring the lasting effects of the crime. The group recently produced a series for the newspaper and in association with HBO, a podcast (“Murder in Boston: The Untold Story of the Charles and Carol Stuart Shooting”), and a docuseries (“Murder in Boston: Roots, Rampage & Reckoning”).

In examining old clips and videos, Globe reporters found the initial stories were sympathetic to the Stuart couple, and the few stories about the Mission Hill community were filled with anti-Black biases that were commonplace in the late 1980s.

Brendan McCarthy, the Globe’s assistant managing editor for special projects, said the story told by the media was “through the prism of this white family,” and one of the podcast’s goals was to retell the story by including testimonies of Mission Hill residents. They were surprised by people’s reactions, he said.

“When the team started going out and knocking on people’s doors, people said, ‘I’ve been waiting to tell the story for 34 years,’” McCarthy said.

“For a lot of people, it was sort of unburdening. They were eager to finally get to tell their side of the story.”

Adrian Walker, Boston Globe podcast host

Adrian Walker, Boston Globe associate editor, columnist, and the podcast host, recalled that when the project began, Mission Hill civic activist Ron Bell warned him that while people might be eager to talk, the memories could resurface the trauma they still carry.

“We found something that is very much still alive in people’s memories and consciousness and still haunts them,” said Walker. “For a lot of people, it was sort of unburdening. They were eager to finally get to tell their side of the story.”

Shortly after the debut of the Globe-HBO efforts, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu issued a public apology to the two Black men who had been wrongly accused in the Stuart case.

Setti Warren, director of the Institute of Politics (IOP) and the event’s moderator, grew up in Boston and praised the decision to include Mission Hill residents and their views on the mistreatment they endured during the police investigation.

“This is the first time I heard the actual stories of Black families, and the injustices they suffered, and the terror they suffered from ‘stop and frisk,’ from police barging though their homes, and upending their lives,” said Warren.

The Stuart case took place against a backdrop of growing crime and racial strife in Boston, but falsely ascribing crimes to Black people has a long history, said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at HKS and director of the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project.

“The ascription of collective guilt, and then the legitimacy of collective punishment on the Black community in Boston, but it could be a brown community in Texas, is a very old problem in this country,” said Muhammad. “And one pathway out of that old problem would be to tell these stories as lessons learned, as history is not to be repeated.”

Even though the series highlighted an episode of mistreatment of a Black community in Boston that would otherwise be ignored or silenced, panelists worry that the police and the media have yet to learn the lessons of their failure to deal with the Stuart case in a fair and unbiased manner.

To the question of whether another Stuart case could happen in Boston today, Koh, the investigative reporter, said the Globe team posed the same question to Mission Hill residents. The responses were pessimistic.

“A surprising number of people said, ‘Yes, because I don’t know how much we’ve learned,’” said Koh. “Some people that think that we’ve made progress point to the fact that because the Stuart case happened people can look to that as history to learn from. There were several people who said, ‘We’re kind of doomed to repeat it in some ways because we didn’t take the lessons that we should have from this case.’ …

“When you look at the recent history of the country, how much do you feel you can say, ‘We’ve moved past a lot of the mistakes that were made in policing at the time’? That is an open question.”

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