Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Candlelight vigil marks two year anniversary of Jason Vassell case

By R.P. Hitt

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Matthew Harrison/Collegian

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 [email protected]


6 Responses to “Candlelight vigil marks two year anniversary of Jason Vassell case”

  1. Ed on February 4th, 2010 3:42 am

    “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.”

    Bulls***! There is a videotape that shows what actually happened and it wasn’t anything close to this.

    First, Vassell’s nose was not broken. He never had to have it fixed and refused to provide (to the DA that wanted to prosecute Bowes) his medical records.

    Second, it is very clear that Bowes struck at Vassell (not in the head/nose) for the purpose of stopping him from stabbing him.

    Third, Vassell was drunk. Very drunk.

    Above and beyond that, he was wearing a hoodie and a ski mask to conceal his identity. In the lobby of his own dorm. Yep, that is something that innocent victims do. Oh, and how many of them go back to their dorm room and get a knife to finish a fight with?

    The video is clear – Vassell lunges the LENGTH OF THE LOBBY after Bowes & Bossie and then repeatedly stabs them. The initial charge of “attempt to murder” is appropriate.

    Yep, most victims I know go back to the safety of their dorm room and then come back out with weaponry to finish the fight. That is like a woman being raped going back to her dorm room to put on her makeup — come now, she would stay there, lock the door behind her, and call the police. As Vassell would have if he truly were a victim of anything.

    Now if we want to talk racist prosecution, why is the pretty (white) blonde girl standing there watching all of this (possibly encouraging it) not considered an accessory and facing charges of her own???


  2. seanp75 on February 4th, 2010 12:30 pm

    9 stab wounds. 9. Maybe I could give you self defense on 2 but not 9. He should do time.


  3. dudeguy on February 4th, 2010 1:49 pm

    ed – wow, no doubt about it.

    you are in sane

    *do you have a single female friend?


  4. GetAClue on February 4th, 2010 3:27 pm

    To Ed:
    It is so refreshing to hear from someone who actually can think for himself and see what really happened that night. I am so sick and tired of people calling Jason the “victim”. I agree wholeheartedly that a VICTIM would not run back to his room, grab a weapon (or two, from what I’ve heard), cover his face in an attempt to conceal his identity and then repeatedly stab two people to the point of them nearly bleeding out on the floor. That, my friends, is PREMEDITATED! It is not defending yourself in the heat of the moment.

    If Jason was so fearful, he needed to stay in his room and call 911. The UMass campus is something like two square-miles wide. The cops could’ve been there in less than 3 minutes – less time than it took Jason to go back to his room, get a weapon, and stab the real victims in this case.

    People need to start using their heads instead of blindly following.
    I can’t wait until that video is released to the public and the people who think Jason is the victim here see what really went down that night.


  5. vs on February 5th, 2010 8:10 am


    So, you’ve seen this video tape? You have personally examined Jason Vassell and hold a medical degree? I doubt that based on your ignorant statements. So, your first point is absurdly mute.

    As to your second point why did Bowes approach Vassell to begin with let alone continue to provoke an altercation?

    It is not relevant whether Vassell was drunk silly boy! He still has a right to defend himself.

    No one acknowledges the poor actions of Bowes and Bosse who should not have provoked the situation with very evident racial undertones.

    Sounds to me like someone has some hidden aggressions themselves let alone needs to go school and actually pay attention.


  6. Martin A. on February 11th, 2010 10:12 pm

    Ed: We can’t really take your comments into consideration unless we can see the video too. How can members of the general public see this video? If we can’t see it, how could you see it?


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