On Oct. 23, 1989, Charles Stuart, a white man, fatally shot his pregnant wife, Carol DiMaiti Stuart, in the head and blamed the shocking murder on a Black man. And for months, city officials, police and media acted on that presumption, besieging Black neighborhoods in search of a suspect.

On Wednesday, Mayor Michelle Wu — Boston’s first mayor of color — did what no other mayor has done: She formally apologized on behalf of the city to two Black men who were wrongly linked to the fatal shooting 34 years ago, Alan Swanson and Willie Bennett, and to Black Bostonians.

“I want to say to Mr. Swanson and Mr. Bennett, the entire Bennett family, and Boston’s entire Black community, I am so sorry for what you endured that day,” Wu said, with Swanson and the Bennett family by her side. "I am so sorry for the pain that you have carried for so many years. What was done to you was unjust, unfair, racist and wrong, and this apology is long overdue.”

Wu also lamented “the tremendous pain that the city of Boston inflicted on Black residents throughout our neighborhoods 34 years ago.”

The unprecedented apology comes in the weeks after the Boston Globe launched a podcast, HBO docuseries and print series revisiting the Stuart murder and the city’s response to Charles Stuart’s lie.

Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox said the documentary reminded him of the impact that the Stuart case has had on Boston and its Black communities and expressed regret for the role of the police.

“As commissioner, I apologize for the hurt, pain and suffering experienced by everyone affected by the Boston Police Department for their poor investigation and overzealous behavior and more likely unconstitutional behavior,” Cox said.

Cox also apologized to the family of Carol DiMaiti Stuart “for the lack of professionalism shown by our department during this investigation.”

He said that Boston is a different place today than it was in 1989.

For more than two months that fall and winter, Boston police, prosecutors and media acted on the description that the suspect was an African American man with “a raspy” voice, a man who was wearing a tracksuit the night he carjacked the Stuarts after they left a birthing class at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The suspect, according to Stuart, shot him in the stomach and his wife in the head after forcing them to drive into the predominantly Black Mission Hill Housing projects, as it was known at the time.

“If you knew and loved a Black man in Boston, you feared for his life,”
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu

Carol Stuart was killed; her baby was delivered by cesarean section but died 17 days later.

The chorus of officials and residents calling for justice grew louder, with Mayor Raymond Flynn at the forefront. Black men were stopped on the streets, pulled from their cars and homes, questioned as they left their jobs and frisked in large numbers.

“Black fathers, Black uncles, Black brothers and Black sons. If you were a parent or a child or a partner or a friend, if you knew and loved a Black man in Boston, you feared for his life,” Wu said.

Police ripped through the city’s housing projects in search of the purported killer, ultimately arresting Swanson and Bennett. During a police lineup, Stuart identified Bennett as the person who had killed his wife. Swanson and Bennett spent weeks behind bars before Stuart’s lies started to unravel. The case was closed after he leaped to his death from the Tobin Bridge into the Mystic River, but the impact lingered for decades.

Boston’s reputation as a bastion of racism, in the eyes of some Black Americans across the country, was cemented by the Stuart case. And the Bennett family complained of police harassment long after Willie Bennett was cleared of murder.

From the beginning, there had been widespread skepticism about Charles Stuart’s description of the suspect.

Many, especially in local Black communities, questioned Charles Stuart’s story about the carjacking, the route the supposed kidnapper forced them to drive to Mission Hill and the alleged Black assailant. But there was far less public skepticism from police leadership, politicians and media. The headline in the Boston Herald the next day read: “A Terrible Night. Gunman Invades Car, Shoots Couple.” The district attorney at the time, Newman Flanagan, called for reinstatement of the death penalty.

Wu said many in the city and beyond fell for the lie because it relied on common tropes and racial stereotypes. “The story was one that confirmed and exposed the beliefs that so many shared — from residents and reporters to officers and officials. At every level and at every opportunity, those in power closed their eyes to the truth because the lie felt familiar.”

Speaking for the family, Bennett’s nephew Joey Bennett thanked Wu for “changing the narrative.”

“It takes great humility and courage to acknowledge someone else's wrongdoings and to try to make amends,” Bennett said. “Your apology is accepted. Yes, the apology is accepted.”

Bennet paid tribute to his uncle Willie, who is reportedly suffering from dementia. Willie Bennett was imprisoned in what was said to be an unrelated case after being cleared for the Stuart murder. Joey Bennett said fallout from the 1989 murder had ripped his family apart.

A man crouches, welling up, while he is hugged by a young woman.
Joseph Bennett, below, nephew of Willie Bennett, who was wrongly accused in the 1989 death of Carol Stuart, is comforted by a family member as he becomes emotional during a news conference, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023, in Boston.
Steven Senne AP Photo

A lawsuit filed by Willie Bennett resulted in the family being awarded a $12,500 settlement from the city in 1995, an amount the family said was so small it was spent by Bennett’s now-deceased mother traveling to and from the prison where he was incarcerated.

Attorney Leslie Harris, who represented Alan Swanson at the time, recounted the death threats that he and Swanson received after Swanson was identified as a suspect. Harris, a retired juvenile court judge, said Swanson “lived in terror. And I don't know how you undo that.”

Wu’s apology on behalf of the city for abetting Stuart’s ruse will have far-ranging effects, Harris said.

“I believe in restorative justice. And in order for restorative justice to occur, you have to acknowledge a wrong. And that's what happened today,” he said. “We’ve had a number of mayors since Flynn. Nobody else has had the courage and the strength to step up and say what our mayor said today. We've had a number of police commissioners, Not one of them apologized until today.”

Harris also thanked the Boston Globe and columnist Adrian Walker for its series on the Stuart case.

The Bennett family suggested to reporters that they will seek further financial compensation for the wrong that was caused to their family. They announced plans to hold a briefing at Roxbury Community College on Thursday.