He Murdered His Wife and Tried to Pin It on a Black Man. A New HBO Doc Offers a Long-Overdue Reckoning.

On Oct. 23, 1989, a man named Charles Stuart called 911 and told a dispatcher that he and his pregnant wife, Carol, had been carjacked, robbed, and shot in the Mission Hill neighborhood of Boston on their way home from a childbirth class at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Carol had been shot in the head, Charles in the stomach. Stuart didn’t seem to know exactly where he was, and at one point announced to the dispatcher that his wife had stopped breathing. (Their unborn child would be delivered by cesarean section, but died 17 days later.) When police finally located his car, Stuart described his assailant as a Black man in a tracksuit with a raspy voice.

Both the Boston police and, soon, the Boston media took Stuart’s version of events at face value, convulsing a city that was already mired in a panic over crime and that was little more than a decade removed from the appalling racial violence of the busing protests of the 1970s. A weekslong manhunt effectively terrorized large segments of Boston’s Black population; Mission Hill community leaders estimated that, at the height of the search, more than 150 stop-and-frisk searches were conducted each day. The police focused on a revolving door of suspects, even briefly arresting one, Alan Swanson, before settling on William Bennett, a 39-year-old resident of Roxbury, as the Stuarts’ likely assailant. All the while, the city’s newspapers and TV stations played up a sensational narrative of Black violence and white victimhood: Bennett’s arrest was covered as though it were a conviction, while the Boston Herald referred to the Stuarts as the “Camelot couple.” Once Charles Stuart had sufficiently recovered, he promptly identified Bennett—whose image had been plastered over newspaper and television coverage for weeks—as his wife’s murderer.

Then it all fell apart. On Jan. 3, 1990, Stuart’s brother Matthew went to the police and confessed that Charles had shot both Carol and himself and staged it to look like a robbery, enlisting Matthew’s help to dispose of the gun and Carol’s jewelry. The following morning, Charles Stuart jumped off the Tobin Bridge, leaving behind a self-pitying suicide note that claimed he’d been “sapped of [his] strength” by an unspecified “new accusation.”

It’s hard to overstate what a cataclysmic episode this was in the region. The case dominated news and conversation for months; as an elementary schooler living in a Boston suburb at the time, I probably heard more about Chuck Stuart in those days than about Larry Bird and Roger Clemens combined. By the end of 1990, there’d already been a made-for-TV movie about the case, and in 1991 Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch had a Top 10 with a song about the murder that remains one of the worst rap records ever made. Then, after a while, the most predictable thing happened: White Bostonians moved on and stopped talking about it.

Now, decades later, the Stuart case is getting the HBO treatment—specifically, as the subject of Jason Hehir’s excellent new three-part documentary Murder in Boston: Roots, Rampage & Reckoning, the first episode of which airs Monday. Hehir is best known for wildly popular sports documentaries like The Last Dance and The Fab Five, compulsively watchable films of the “print-the-legend” variety that don’t naturally suggest a great fit with a subject as complex as this one. But Hehir proves more than up to the task: Murder in Boston is the best of his documentaries I’ve seen to date, even if it’ll probably collect only a fraction of the views of his star-studded sports films.

Murder in Boston doesn’t break much formal ground: It hews mostly to the industry-standard mix of archival footage and talking-head interviews, and even includes Hehir’s much-memed Last Dance technique of occasionally having subjects watch footage of one another’s testimonies on an iPad. But the series is refreshingly nuanced, rich in context, and deftly assured in its narrative decisionmaking. The sharpest of these choices is to foreground the role of race in the Stuart affair, in terms of both its backdrop and its aftermath. The details of Carol Stuart’s murder and the unraveling of her husband’s story were so shocking that, at the time, little attention was paid by Boston’s predominantly white media to the extraordinary collateral damage that the case wreaked on Boston’s Black communities. Murder in Boston focuses largely on the experience of the Stuart case through the eyes of Black Bostonians, featuring a variety of terrific interviews with the likes of writer and historian Dart Adams, journalist Howard Bryant, longtime Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker, and renowned attorney and activist Ted Landsmark, among many others. The series’ first episode deals primarily with Boston’s shamefully extensive history of anti-Black racism prior to the Stuart murder, including the aforementioned antibusing protests of the 1970s, in which Black schoolchildren were pelted with rocks and a clash outside City Hall produced one of the most notorious images in the city’s history.

Hehir’s documentary also includes heartbreaking present-day interviews with Dereck Jackson, who as a teenager was coerced into giving false testimony implicating William Bennett in the murder, as well as multiple members of Bennett’s family, all of whom recount how Chuck Stuart’s lies turned their lives upside down. Representing the Boston Police Department’s perspective are former Commissioner William Bratton and retired Detective Bill Dunn, the latter of whom was a notorious presence in Mission Hill back in the 1980s and steadfastly maintains throughout the film that the cops did nothing wrong. (To this day, as Murder in Boston notes, the Boston Police Department has never apologized to the Bennett family for its conduct during the search for Carol Stuart’s killer; in a truly stomach-churning moment late in the final episode of the series, Dunn seems to imply that he still believes that Bennett may be guilty of Carol Stuart’s murder.)

Hehir’s decision to not focus very much on the Stuarts themselves—particularly Charles, who once upon a time was mistaken for an interesting subject—is refreshing. Even as murderers go, Stuart isn’t especially compelling: He killed his wife out of little more than resentment and greed—motives as old as murder itself—fearing that Carol would want to quit her breadwinning job as a tax attorney when the baby came, and reportedly cashed in approximately $82,000 in life insurance after her death. But I’m not sure that the full heinousness of Stuart’s deeds has ever been fully reckoned with by Bostonians, or even Americans in general. Here was a man who not only killed his wife and unborn child, but then actively sought to destroy the life of a complete stranger he knew was innocent. Chuck Stuart had no reason to tell the cops that William Bennett was the man who shot him other than the most craven instinct of self-preservation, his hope that it would end an investigation that always should have centered on him in the first place.

I don’t live in the Boston area anymore, but have spent the majority of my life there, and in recent years have found myself bemused and a little unnerved by the glut of Boston-based, gritty, and vaguely noirish entertainments that have proliferated through 21st-century American popular culture. Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Killing Them Softly, Black Mass, City on a Hill—the list goes on and on. The sheer quantity of these kinds of works suggests some collective fantasy of Boston as a last bastion of a particular sort of hard-boiled whiteness, a place where Caucasian men with pahk-the-cah accents are always at the top of the transgressive heap. It’s a fantasy that often seems to play a lurid sort of footsie with the city’s racial past: The opening sequence of Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed even sets archival footage from the busing crisis to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Murder in Boston reminds us just how abominable that past is, and it left me pondering the implications of Charles Stuart’s own tough-guy delusions. Here was a venal and stupid crook who killed his own wife in the clumsiest of scams, and did so under the presumption that any Black man’s life was worth less than his own. Chuck Stuart took it for granted that white Bostonians would believe him to be the hero of his own sordid story, and for a while he was almost proved right.