Murder in Boston director Jason Hehir was a teenager when the Carol and Chuck Stuart case brought decades of racial tensions in the city to a head. But he’s been thinking about it ever since.
“I remember it vividly,” Hehir tells MovieMaker. “I was in eighth grade, I’d just turned 13, and I remember reading about it on daily basis and watching it on Channel 4 at the time.”
“It’s all that people were talking about. You couldn’t go into a restaurant or the post office or a CVS without hearing someone in line talk about it or a waitress talking about it to the table. It really gripped the entire city, because it was so tragic,” he adds.
It was 1989. The Stuarts, a white, married couple with a baby on the way from the nearby suburb of Reading, were driving through the Mission Hill neighborhood when Chuck Stuart made an eery 911 call telling police that they had been robbed at gunpoint by a Black man whom he accused of shooting Carol in the head and himself in the stomach.
As Chuck recovered in the hospital, Boston law enforcement faced immense pressure to catch Carol’s killer. But as the public would later learn, they were looking in all the wrong places.
Thirty-four years later, Hehir, the filmmaker behind The Last Dance and Andre the Giant, is making his true-crime debut with Murder in Boston: Roots, Rampage & Reckoning, a three-part HBO original docuseries produced in association with The Boston Globe. With expert storytelling and revealing interviews with journalists, former detectives, and family members of the wrongfully accused, the docuseries analyzes the surprising twists and turns of the Stuart case and its role in underscoring Boston’s historically poor treatment of its residents of color.
Murder in Boston Revisits the Carol and Chuck Stuart Case
The 10-week long manhunt, which lasted from late October 1989 to early January 1990, saw Boston police tear apart the Mission Hill projects and falsely accuse two Black men, Alan Swanson and Willie Bennett, of murder. Each were arrested and their names sullied in the media, though neither were ever charged with the crime.
The narrative surrounding the case was flipped on its head when, on Jan. 3, 1990, Chuck’s brother, Matthew, revealed to police that he’d assisted Chuck in faking the robbery, not realizing until later that it was Chuck who had killed Carol in an effort to profit from $182,000 in life insurance policies. The next morning, Chuck Stuart jumped off the Tobin Bridge to his death. Matthew Stuart served three years in prison for obstruction of justice and insurance fraud.
Murder in Boston investigates the decades of racial tension — particularly surrounding the desegregation of the Boston school system and the Garrity busing ruling of 1974 — that positioned the Stuart case to completely break down the already frayed relationship between Black communities in neighborhoods like Mission Hill and the South End, and the white, Irish-Catholic, male-dominated city government and police force.
As the docuseries explains, the Stuart case divided the city in two: While white Bostonians expressed their fears of setting foot in the city’s Black neighborhoods, Bostonians of color lived in fear of being harmed by the city’s misguided quest for Carol Stuart’s retribution.
As a native Bostonian, Hehir has long been dreaming of making a documentary about the case, which has largely disappeared from public discourse because of its ugly connection to the city’s racist past. As Hehir was researching the case and speaking to Bostonians, he was surprised the find that many young people had never heard of the case at all.
“When I mentioned it to people when we first started, anyone from outside the city, no matter what age they were, had no idea about this, no recollection of the story. And anyone younger than me, so that would have been younger than 45 at the time, even if they were born raised in Boston, they didn’t know about it,” he says.
“It was such a shameful chapter in the city’s history that people just kind of swept it under the rug. They figured Chuck Stuart had duped the entire city and its institutions, and he jumped off the bridge, so the guilty party was literally dead in the water.”
Even after multiple people close to Chuck Stuart came forward with accounts that he had propositioned them for help with pulling off his wife’s murder, it took time for the grip that Chuck’s false narrative had on the community to loosen.
“I especially remember, vividly, the day that Chuck jumped, which was January 4, 1990,” Hehir says. “I remember hearing teachers say, ‘It’s so sad. He just couldn’t take it anymore, the grief.’ And when you think about that now, the community seemed incapable of wrapping their head around the fact that this could have been anything except what Chuck said it was. And that bled into the investigation as well.”
Even more than underscoring Chuck Stuart as the villain the story, Hehir’s goal was to facilitate some healing between the Mission Hill community and the Boston Police Department, which he hopes will be inspired to finally apologize to the many people who were hurt, like Willie Bennett, Alan Swanson, and their family members.
“I think it would be a great moment of healing for the city, and I don’t think that it would diminish the Boston Police or any city officials who would offer an apology. I actually think it would elevate them in the community,” Hehir says.
“All these years later, to acknowledge, Yes, we caused tremendous undue pain to this family — I think that would bring a lot of relief and a lot of healing to that community and to the family and to the city. So I hope, at the very least, that the doc motivates a discussion about these things.”
Murder in Boston premieres tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Max.
Main Image: The Tobin Bridge where Chuck Stuart jumped to his death in 1990, courtesy of HBO