Candlelight vigil marks two year anniversary of Jason Vassell case
On Wednesday, Feb. 3, a group of 30 braved the cold and gathered outside of Northampton’s First Church at 7 p.m. to demand charges be dropped in the now two-year-old Jason Vassell case. The group, Justice for Jason, assembled to march towards Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel’s office to protest what it calls her racist prosecution of Vassell, a former University of Massachusetts student who is charged with assaulting two non-students in Feb. 2008.
As the group made its way down the streets of Northampton, onlookers stopped to take notice. Of the attendees at the vigil, most were from the Valley area, including residents of Northampton, Amherst, and Springfield.
Vassell was arrested Feb. 3, 2008 on charges of aggravated assault for allegedly stabbing two white males in a contentious altercation at MacKimmie Hall. According to his defense team, Vassell acted in self defense, as his attorneys and supporters hold he was first taunted and then assaulted by the two men he ultimately stabbed. Vassell, now 24, faces up to thirty years in prison if convicted, which his supporters contend is overly harsh considering the circumstances of the case.
What followed has been a two-year saga of controversy and unrest in a normally peaceful college town, as residents on both sides have been outspoken and organized. Supporters claim Vassell is a victim of racist police and prosecutors, others contend he stabbed two unarmed men and should be held accountable.
The two men, John Bowes and Jonathan Bosse, allegedly came to Vassell’s window around 5 a.m. on Feb. 3, 2008.The two men reportedly shouted racial slurs at Vassell, and allegedly attempted to rouse him into fighting them. Vassell called his friend for help, and as he was letting his friend into MacKimmie, Bosse and Bowes allegedly gained entrance.
Bowes then allegedly struck Vassell, breaking his nose. According to reports, Vassell allegedly fought back with a pocket knife, stabbing Bowes four times and Bosse five times.
Bowes was convicted of disorderly conduct last March, but acquitted of civil rights violations and sentenced to one year of probation and a $200 fine, and Bosse was not charged.
Supporters maintain that the incident and the following action of the police and District Attorney were racially motivated. Vassell’s defense is currently attempting to seek a so-called selective racial prosecution defense. This defense asserts that the Vassell is being targeted for prosecution specifically based on his race, and that similarly situated individuals of a different race would not be prosecuted the same way.
Last January, Northwestern Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Dunphy Farris, who is prosecuting the case, requested for the trial to be moved to a new location, citing what she said is the difficulty of assembling an impartial jury in Hampshire County.
The group Justice for Jason lit candles and sang “We Shall Overcome” on their walk from the church to the District Attorney’s office, at 1 Gleason Plaza. The assembly consisted of people from several different age groups, consisting mostly of residents of the Pioneer Valley.
Sara Vitello, a former UMass student who now is a student at Holyoke Community College, carried a banner that read “They took away 2 years, we won’t let them take 30 more.”
Vitello said she felt “hopeful,” for the trial. “As we were moving, I saw a lot of people looking at us,” said Vitello.
In Vitello’s estiamte, the protest helped gain support for Vassell’s cause.
UMass alumnus and Justice for Jason member Dan Keefe believes that Vassell was the target of a hate crime.
Molly Coon, also a UMass alumnus, came to show support for the Vassell family, and said she believes the prosecution is attempting to stall the case so it fades from the public light.
“I am here mostly to give support to Jason and his family,” said Coon. “I’m concerned that the case is being dragged out to diminish support.”
“He thought that he was going to get killed, Bosse and Bowes were saying incredibly racist things,” said Keefe. “Jason had the right to defend himself.”
“To some extent, the UMass campus has forgotten about Jason Vassell,” said Keefe. “He was a UMass honors student in biology, and now he is stuck with the possibility of a 30 year sentence hanging over his head.”
According to his supporters, Vassell gave Bowes and Bosse fair enough warning by allegedly showing him the knife.
“Jason told them to stay away from him, but they were the aggressors by coming after him anyway,” said Keefe.
Andy Berg, a senator in the SGA, was also at the vigil.
“When injustice is committed, we must try to work to improve the situation,” said Berg. “This is indicative of larger problems in society.”
Joe Mirkin, a spokesperson for Justice for Jason, gave his account of the night.
“This is a very solemn occasion,” said Mirkin. “The vigil itself is for community support in an on going fight against injustice.”
A video of the Feb. 2008 incident remains in the hands of the police.
The vigil ended at Gleason Plaza, home to the Northwestern District Attorney’s office. The crowd gathered around, saying a few words in support of Vassell, and then began to shout “Justice for Jason” towards the building. The crowd then said their goodbyes and dispersed.
Bobby Hitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.