FREE AT LAST: Jason Vassell and his mother, Esmie James, are flanked by defense attorneys Luke Ryan and David P. Hoose after the hearing.
A Mattapan man's 28-month legal ordeal ended in a Northampton courtroom last week, as the Northwestern District Attorney's office agreed to drop all charges against him pending an additional two months of incident-free pre-trial probation.
As previously reported in the Phoenix, Jason Vassell, a black former UMass Amherst student, was charged two years ago with aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (a knife) following a February 3, 2008, altercation in his dormitory. Vassell's "victims" in this case were two white non-student interlopers who shouted racial epithets at him, entered his dorm, and who (later testing proved) were drunk. The agreement filed last Friday revealed that Vassell was also intoxicated during the incident and was then experiencing "elevated stress due to academic and personal issues."
First Deputy Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Dunphy Farris tells the Phoenix she had sought such a settlement since being assigned the case in December 2008. "My discussions have always been with the defense about Mr. Vassell taking responsibility for using a knife in a situation where a knife was not warranted," says Dunphy Farris, "and my belief is this agreement solidifies that interest."
Shortly after the incident, UMass students, faculty, and community members formed a Committee for Justice for Jason Vassell to organize rallies and raise money for his defense. Vassell's supporters contended that he was the victim of a hate crime and acted only in self-defense.
Defense attorney David P. Hoose says, "For two and a half years, [Vassell] has proven himself to be the man that we told the prosecution he was right at the beginning . . . and that was the number-one fact as to why the commonwealth was willing to do this."
Vassell declined to make a statement, but his mother, Esmie James, says the long legal battle "partially ruined his life," and the stress made his father "very, very sick." She is happy it is finally over. "My baby is free," she says. "Free at last."