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Adrian Walker

No solace for scapegoat

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / September 5, 2011

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Against all odds, Willie Bennett has just become the only surviving major figure from the Carol DiMaiti Stuart murder case.

Don’t expect relief, or celebration. The wounds are too deep, the scars have long since refused to heal. When I reached Bennett yesterday to tell him that Matthew Stuart had passed away in a Cambridge homeless shelter, these were his words:

“I really don’t care.’’ He said he was drowsy, knocked out. Then he elaborated. “It hurts to talk about it. What good does it do me?’’

Carol Stuart was, of course, the woman killed on Oct. 23, 1989, on the way home from a birthing class at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She was the woman whose husband, Charles, told the world, falsely, that a black gunman had forced his way into their car and shot them both. Charles Stuart’s story unraveled a few months later when his younger brother, Matthew, told police Charles was the killer they were looking for. Within hours Charles tossed himself off the Tobin Bridge.

By then, the damage had been done. Police terrorized Mission Hill, rounding up their idea of the usual black suspects. Willie Bennett was the unlucky one identified as the shooter. Except, of course, he wasn’t.

I was standing in Bennett’s sister’s backyard when we connected by telephone yesterday. For the family, Matthew Stuart’s death fell somewhere between sad and irrelevant.

“I’m sorry for him,’’ Diane Bennett told me. “He got my brother off the hook and I appreciate that. But at the same time, that was after helping his brother kill his wife and his baby. My brother didn’t do it, but got blamed. Twenty-one years later, I feel we’ve never gotten the recognition we deserve.’’

Bennett’s niece, Sharita, was 8 on the night of the killing. She remembers the commotion. “They tore up my cousin’s house. My grandmother had a heart attack and stroke that night. It was just chaos.’’

Since then, being a Bennett from Mission Hill has connotations. “People always ask me if I’m Willie Bennett’s niece,’’ Sharita said. “People always have something to say about it.’’

Matthew Stuart’s sentence as an accessory in the murder case was the start of nearly a decade of legal troubles. Marty Rosenthal was his last lawyer, representing him against drug and parole violation charges. He quickly realized that he was not handling a typical case.

Matthew Stuart did not have any drugs when he was hauled before Superior Court Judge Robert Banks on a drug possession charge. But he went to prison anyway, for violating parole.

“The court officers were surrounding my client even as I was still making my argument to Judge Banks,’’ he recalled yesterday. “It was a nothing case, but I had to face up to the fact that I had a notorious defendant.’’

Rosenthal eventually won Matthew Stuart’s release, but just as there has been no escape from being Willie Bennett, there was no escape from being Matthew Stuart.

Boston took years to recover from its worst racist caricature, and nowhere was the damage more keenly felt than in Mission Hill. The notion that an entire neighborhood could come under suspicion so quickly and so definitively was shattering. “This traumatized Mission Hill,’’ said Ron Bell, a longtime resident.

That era felt like long ago when I walked around the neighborhood yesterday. The projects have been rebuilt, and the biggest excitement was a softball game. Music blared, and nobody seemed to know anything about Matthew Stuart. But such calm has never been possible for the Bennetts. Sharita Bennett was not surprised that her uncle had so little to say. “He never talks about it,’’ she said. “He just wishes for it to go away.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com