Students and staff rally in support of Jason Vassell on Wednesday, March 12, 2008. Vassell, an African American UMass student who supporters say was excessively charged following a Feb. 3, 2008, on-campus fight, is still awaiting the outcome of a motion to dismiss the charges. (AP Photo/Nancy Palmieri)
|Jason Vassell and girlfriend Tracy Kelley at a friend’s wedding in September 2008. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Kelley)
|This Dec. 31, 2008 file photo, shows former University of Massachusetts student Jason Vassell in Hampshire Superior Court, in Northampton, Mass. (AP Photo/The Republican, Bob Stern, File)
Two years ago, Jason Vassell was a normal senior at UMass Amherst. The youngest son of Jamaican immigrants who had settled in Mattapan, Vassell was a well-liked biology major dreaming of medical school and a career researching treatments for cancer and AIDS.
Today, his education is stalled; he spends his days working alongside his father, an electrician, to pay legal bills and is cautious about going out after dark or being around people he doesn’t know well. The sound of sirens sends him into “panic mode.”
Vassell’s life changed around 5:00 a.m. on February 3, 2008, when two drunken white men appeared at the window to his dorm room and shouted threats and racial slurs. In the confrontation that ensued, one of the men broke Vassell’s nose, and he stabbed them both with a pocketknife.
Vassell, his attorneys and a broad network of supporters say that he was the victim of a hate crime and acted in self-defense, but the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office indicted Vassell on two counts of aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, charges that mean he could serve 30 years in prison if convicted.
In the two years since the incident, Vassell has become a cause and, for many, a symbol. Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, a Professor in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department Afro-American Studies at UMass, said Vassell is an example of the way a black man who’s doing everything right can be brought down by racist stereotypes.
“How the case was handled, first by the [university], and then to a much larger extent by the prosecutor’s office,” Thelwell said, “is a classic case of mindless stereotypical … racial profiling … of the kind which is very common in law enforcement circles … but is more distressing when encountered in an institution of higher learning.”
The Committee for Justice for Jason Vassell, formed just after the incident, has rallied hundreds of UMass students, faculty, alumni and others to a series of protests and fundraisers. The group has made strong shows of support at most of Vassell’s many court appearances and raised $18,000 toward Vassell’s legal expenses.
But even as supporters rallied around Vassell, detractors have called him just another black criminal who seeks to cloak his actions behind charges of racism.
Through a spokesperson for the committee, Vassell declined to be interviewed for this story, but his girlfriend, Tracy Kelley, 24, told the Banner, “It’s been two years of faith and hope.
“We’ve never declined in our faith that there will be justice for Jason,” Kelley said, “but at the same time … a lot of average, everyday things that a 25-year-old would be planning, like leasing out an apartment or things like that, long term decision-making is kind of iffy because at the bottom of everything is, OK, is he going away to jail for 30 years or is he not?”
Vassell’s friend Alex Pavidapha, 23, who was his roommate at the time of the incident, said they talk about once a week but they rarely discuss his case. “It’s tough,” Pavidapha said. “He doesn’t really like talking about it … you can tell it’s definitely a burden on him. He knows what the consequences can be if the worst-case scenario happens.”
For two years, the case has moved slowly through the courts, with no end in sight. For more than a year, lawyers have wrangled over a motion to dismiss that Vassell’s defense team filed in December 2008.
His attorneys claim that the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office under Republican Elizabeth D. Scheibel has engaged in selective prosecution motivated by race, and they have requested access to prosecution files on similar cases that they believe will prove a pattern of racially biased prosecution.
The district attorney’s office lost out in their bid to block the defense from accessing the files, but they still have not handed them over, and even when they do, it may take months just to review them.
Attorneys for both sides declined to comment for this story.
Some elements of that night’s events are not in dispute. Both sides agree that in early morning hours of Feb. 3, 2008, Vassell, then 23, was in his dorm room on the ground floor of Mackimmie Hall. Two white women who lived in neighboring rooms had stopped in to talk, and one went to the window to let in some fresh air.
Outside the dorm were John C. Bowes, then 20, and his friend Jonathan Bosse, then 19, both from Milton, Mass. Bowes and Bosse were not UMass students; they were on campus visiting friends and had been to a party earlier. When they were tested later that morning, Bowes’ blood alcohol content was .18 percent and Bosse’s was .26 percent. Both exceeded the .08 percent legal limit to operate a motor vehicle in Massachusetts; Bowes by more than twice the limit and Bosse by more than three times.
The woman at the window later told police that one of the men said he wanted to hang out with her and be her friend, and that “she was ‘creeped out’ by his demeanor and the fact that he had been spying on them through the window.” Vassell told the men to leave, and witnesses say they shouted threats and racial slurs, challenging him to come outside and fight them. When he refused, they broke his window.
One of the women then called housing staff to report the broken window. When no one came to investigate, Vassell called a male friend in a nearby dorm and asked him to come over. Vassell went to the lobby and unlocked the door to let his friend in, but Bowes and Bosse, who had been quietly waiting outside, slipped in behind him.
There is less agreement about what happened next. A witness said Vassell pulled out a small pocketknife, one that he used for doing electrical work with his father, only to warn the men away, telling them that he didn’t want to use it.
According to the eyewitness, Bowes struck the first blow, breaking Vassell’s nose, and he and Bosse punched both Vassell and his friend who had come to help. Vassell stabbed Bowes four times and Bosse five times, according to the police report, and then fled behind a metal door that locked behind him so that Bowes and Bosse could not follow.
Shortly after the incident, UMass gave Vassell an ultimatum: withdraw from the university or be expelled. Vassell withdrew to avoid an expulsion on his academic record.
It got worse. Though Vassell had no criminal record, the district attorney charged him with two counts of armed assault with intent to murder and two counts of aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. The grand jury threw out the attempted murder charges but indicted Vassell on the aggravated assault charges, felonies that carry a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison for each charge.
Bowes, who had a lengthy record of violent altercations in Milton, at least one of them racially motivated, was charged with disorderly conduct, civil rights violations with injury, and assault and battery to intimidate with bodily injury. Ultimately, he was convicted only of misdemeanor disorderly conduct and sentenced to one year of probation and a fine of $200.
Bosse, who also had a record of violent crimes, was never charged with any crime related to this incident.
Since the case hasn’t come to trial, prosecutors haven’t made public their entire theory of the events, but at a hearing last February, Deputy First Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Dunphy Farris said security video from the camera in the dorm’s lobby showed that Vassell was the aggressor. She alleged that he “lunged at both Mr. Bosse and Mr. Bowes before there was any physical altercation.”
UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski declined to comment beyond saying that UMass police had cooperated with the district attorney’s office and “the matter is in the courts.” But Barbara O’Connor, the former chief of the UMass Amherst Police Department and now executive director of public safety at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, stood by the department’s investigation and the district attorney’s charges.
“At the end of the day, this is on video,” O’Connor said, “so some of these facts are irrefutable, and when it goes to trial, they’ll be more public, but clearly the evidence supported charging him. … To me the content of the video was very clear; that it did not support any self-defense theory, that it did not support that Vassell was a victim in fear of himself.”
O’Connor said that racial bias played no part in deciding who would be charged. She explained that following the incident she showed the security video to Dean of Students Jo-Anne Vanin, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Esther Terry and Chancellor Thomas W. Cole Jr., who are all African American, and that “those three individuals fully supported and understood why Mr. Vassell needed to be charged.”
Vassell’s attorneys have maintained that the video in fact shows Bowes landing the first blow and that Vassell acted only in self-defense. This interpretation appears to be supported by the description of Judge Judd J. Carhart, who in a court document wrote that the security camera footage showed Vassell “mostly backing away while Bowes and Bosse were advancing on him.”
Today, Kelley said, Vassell is focused on the future. “He’s trying to do everyday things to make sure that just because he was the victim of a hate crime doesn’t mean his whole life has to stop,”she said.
“He’s still reading his biology books and chemistry books … because one day he will finish his education, once justice is served.”
Vassell will return to court for a status hearing on Feb. 9.