Jason Vassell, a former University of Massachusetts student, will have charges of aggravated assault and battery dropped if he completes two more months of probation without incidence. The decision was made last week at Hampshire Superior Court in front of a packed courtroom, and has ended the 28 month long saga, which began on Feb. 3, 2008.
After negotiations made between the defense and the prosecution, Judge Judd Carhart ruled the agreement between the defense and prosecution to be “appropriate,” and Vassell would be eligible to have his record wiped clean after completing the final two months of his probation without violation.
Vassell was given two and a half years of probation for the stabbings of John Bowes and Jonathan Bosse, beginning after he was released on pre-trial probation in February 2008. His probation expires on Aug. 3.
“What I hope is obvious is what a tremendous victory this is for Jason Vassell,” said Vassell’s lawyer David P. Hoose, “who came into this courtroom two years ago saying he should not be found guilty or tried for any offense [and] was released on probationary [terms] and in two more months this case will be officially dismissed.”
“Many people share in this victory,” continued Hoose. “And number one is Jason, because for two and half years he has proven to be the man we said he was to the prosecution. The Commonwealth saw he was not a violent person or a trouble-maker.”
Hoose also complimented Vassell’s other lawyer, Luke Ryan, on a document that attempted to prove Vassell had been a victim of a racially motivated attack.
“It was one of the finest pieces of legal work I have seen,” said Hoose.
“This is everything we told the prosecution,” said Vassell’s former UMass biology professor Zane Barlow-Coleman. “He is a great student, who is hard-working and this was a hate crime. [Vassell] acted in self-defense. He is a member of the UMass community, and this was a victory for him but also for the UMass community.”
The Justice for Jason Committee called the ruling a victory, as the committee’s belief was the stabbings committed by Vassell were provoked by a racially influenced hate crime. About an hour after the hearing was complete, the committee held a celebratory press conference in the Media Education Foundation. The group is demanding an apology from Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, Attorney General Martha Coakley and from UMass, particularly Chancellor Robert Holub and President Jack Wilson.
“We demand a formal public apology from District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel and Attorney General Martha Coakley,” said recent UMass graduate and the Justice for Jason Committee’s longest standing member Jasmin Torrejon in a speech at the press conference, “for selectively prosecuting Jason while letting two men with extensive histories of racially-motivated attacks walk away with little or no charges and for ignoring the calls and pleas from their constituents to reverse this mistake and dismiss the charges against Jason.”
Torrejon’s speech accused the prosecution of being “unjust.”
“Today, we have forced our elected officials to recognize that they are indeed accountable to the people whom they serve,” said Torrejon. “When people get together to fight for justice and mobilize to build power, our communities can win major victories against systems of inequality and oppression. The Committee for Justice for Jason and a massive network of supporters did not stand down throughout this entire miscarriage of justice.”
Scheibel was not present at the hearing, but Asst. District Attorney Elizabeth Dunphy Farris, who acted as the prosecutor, stated the Commonwealth had an obligation to Bosse and Bowes under the victims’ rights law to notify both Bowes and Bosse of the court’s ruling.
“The victims still do have physical scars [from] the public media unwarranted to their character,” said Farris at the hearing, referring to Bowes and Bosse, neither of whom was present at the hearing.
Farris could not be reached for comment by press time.
“After being viciously assaulted by two racist white men and pursued by a racist prosecution, Jason has a chance to see justice today,” said Justice for Jason committee member Ari Cowan in an interview outside the courtroom before the hearing. Cowan was handing out Justice for Jason t-shirts for Vassell’s supporters to wear in the courtroom.
During the incident on Feb. 3, evidence provided to Judge Carhart explained that Bowes and Bosse had shouted racial epithets at Vassell, followed a resident into the lobby of Vassell’s dormitory, MacKimmie Hall, and the three began to fight. Vassell sustained a broken nose in the scuffle and injured Bowes and Bosse with a knife.
“I don’t think we, as white people, can understand the fear that goes through a black man when white men are screaming [racial epithets] at you,” said Hoose during the press conference.
Evidence provided to both the defense and the prosecutors confirms Vassell, Bowes and Bosse had consumed alcohol on the night of the incident. However, according to Hoose, medical records show that Vassell’s blood alcohol levels were “significantly less” than Bowes’ or Bosse’s levels.
“My baby is free,” said Esmie James, Vassell’s mother, after walking out of the courtroom with her son. “I’m really happy it’s over with. My son is a good young man, and I’m sorry this happened to him because it has partially ruined his life. But he’ll get out and start over. He is a good kid, so I know he can do it.”
Jason’s father was not present at the hearing, and according to James, he was unable to attend because of physical illnesses he contracted as a result of the stress he felt over his son’s case.
According to Masai Keels, a close family member of Vassell, Vassell intends to continue pursuing his engineering license and resume his education.
“Now he can truly spread his wings and do what he wants to do,” said Keels.
Vassell did not confirm whether he would return to UMass if offered reinstatement.
“I lost all respect for and regretted the 40 years service I had given to the University because of its reaction to Jason’s case,” said retired African-American Studies Professor Michael Thelwell.
Vassell withdrew from UMass shortly after the incident on Feb. 3. among speculation that he had been given an “ultimatum” from the University to withdraw or face expulsion.
During the Justice for Jason Committee’s press conference Keels thanked supporters on behalf of Vassell’s family and said “there is still more work to do. I’m hoping that through education and compassion, we can change the system.”
“Jason had excellently good representation, which most young black men would never get,” said Thelwell in a speech he made during the press conference. “He also had the support of the Justice for Jason Committee and the support of the conscience of the community. It is a victory, but not a joyous occasion because we still have not received justice for Jason. Without those things, an exemplary man would have had his life demolished and that was clearly the intention of the prosecution. Let’s not forget none of this should have happened.”
Alyssa Creamer can be reached at [email protected]