Stuart Murder Case Raises Issue of Racial Stereotyping

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BOSTON, along with the rest of the United States, is trying to sort out the lessons of the Carol Stuart murder case and its effects on race relations. Blacks are angered that the police, media, and the public jumped to the conclusion that Charles Stuart told the truth when he said a black mugger shot him and his pregnant wife after they left a hospital childbirth class.

Mr. Stuart committed suicide last week after his brother told police Stuart was the murderer.

``I think the Stuart case is an example of how starting from negative racist assumptions about a people and a community can lead to a kind of rush to judgment and condemnation,'' says the Rev. Charles Stith, a black United Methodist pastor here. ``It also reflects how those same assumptions can lead us to not follow the dictates of common sense and do a thorough investigation.''

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When a spouse is killed, police usually investigate the surviving spouse. Statistics show that most murder victims are killed by someone they know well.

While police did a cursory check into Stuart's background, they also implemented a sweeping manhunt in the neighborhood where the alleged attack took place. The area's reputation made Stuart's story more credible.

Media reports based on police sources identified William Bennett, a black man with a criminal record who reportedly bragged of doing the killing, as the primary suspect.

The issue illustrates the frequent reaction of police departments to crime in minority communities, says Frank Lomax, executive vice president of the National Urban League.

``This was fed by the picture the media creates of crime in the black community,'' Mr. Lomax says. ``The issue has been framed as a black problem. The reaction of the media and police are part and parcel of that framing.''

Given the circumstances, Lomax says, he can understand some police oversight in the case. ``But what I don't understand is why they did not take a more ... careful approach to the investigation. And the media just picked it up and ran with it.''

``The African-American community ... was not only fingered, but tried and sentenced in the press,'' says state Rep. Gloria Fox (D) of Roxbury.

The Rev. Mr. Stith says he thinks that if the alleged crime had occurred in nearby affluent Brookline, Stuart's story would have undergone stricter scrutiny.

While defending the police, Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn agrees the stereotypes hurt. ``On the night of the incident, one person created a hoax on the city of Boston. He fooled all of us, and got incredible attention, because of the stereotypes about the community,'' he told reporters this week after an ecumenical healing service at a neighborhood church.

``We must admit that we have a problem of racism in our country and in our police departments,'' Lomax says. He applauds changes in Seattle and Houston.

In Seattle, police have begun bicycle patrols to get closer to the neighborhoods, and are wearing less-threatening uniforms. Houston has decentralized police operations and put more police on the street to break down obstacles between the police and the public.

Stith points to ``the need to deal with the injustices and inequities that lead to communities of color that are economically and socially ravaged.'' He calls for more inner-city development and job opportunities for minorities.

Black leaders here are calling for the creation of a commission to investigate police and press behavior during the Stuart affair. Representative Fox says she and others have met with US Attorney Wayne Budd, who agreed to look into any allegations of civil rights violations during the inquiry.

Meanwhile, a similar situation may be brewing in Ithaca, N.Y. There, police are searching for two black men and a woman wanted for questioning in the murder of a white couple and their two children in their home. The trio was reportedly seen using the family's credit and bank cards. Some residents worry that the public has decided on the basis of stereotypes that the three are the murderers.

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