A racial incident that rocked Western Massachusetts two years ago may finally be laid to rest this week, as a black former UMass Amherst student charged with aggravated assault returns to court, apparently having reached an agreement with the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office.
HOPEFUL SIGNALS After waiting two years for a trial, Jason Vassell, a former UMass student charged with assault, may finally see his case resolved.
The former student, Jason Vassell, says he was the victim of a hate crime and acted in self-defense when baited by two non-student interlopers, but the prosecution claims Vassell was the aggressor in the altercation. On campus and online, Vassell has become a symbol — to his supporters, an example of how even a hard-working, upwardly mobile black man can be brought down by a racist system; to his detractors, a guilty black criminal hiding behind his race.
In the early morning hours of February 3, 2008, Vassell, then 23 and a senior biology major, was in his ground-floor room in the MacKimmie Hall dormitory talking with two white women who lived in neighboring rooms when two white men appeared outside his window.
John C. Bowes, then 20, and Jonathan Bosse, then 19, were not students; they were on campus to visit friends and were later determined to be drunk. According to a witness statement, one of the men asked the woman near the window to hang out with him and be his friend, and Vassell asked the men to leave. They shouted threats and racial slurs and broke a window. Vassell called a friend and asked him to come over.
When Vassell admitted his friend into the dorm’s lobby, Bowes and Bosse followed, and a physical confrontation ensued. Allegedly, Bowes broke Vassell’s nose and Vassell stabbed both men with a small pocketknife, then fled behind a metal door that locked behind him.
The district attorney’s office elected not to charge Bosse with any crime, but charged Bowes with disorderly conduct and a civil-rights violation, ultimately convicting him only of misdemeanor disorderly conduct, good for a year’s probation and a fine of $200.
The DA indicted Vassell on two counts of aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, felonies that mean he could serve 30 years in prison if convicted. Two years later, Vassell is out on bail and the case still has not come to trial; the defense has fought to have the case dismissed under a claim of selective prosecution motivated by racial bias.
The Committee for Justice for Jason Vassell, formed shortly after Vassell was charged, has rallied hundreds of students, faculty, alumni, and community members to protests on campus and at the courthouse. Vassell’s detractors are less organized but no less passionate, heckling pro-Vassell protestors and posting racially tinged screeds online.
Vassell was scheduled to return to court last Friday, but on Thursday the defense filed a motion to push the status conference back to April 1, stating that Vassell was “exploring resolution of the case with the Commonwealth and needs an additional week to finalize an agreement.”
Attorneys for both sides declined to comment on the case’s possible resolution, but UMass Department of Afro-American Studies professor — and Justice for Jason committee member — Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, reached by phone on Sunday, expressed cautious optimism.
“I’ve received hopeful signals,” said Thelwell, “that, after two years, this case might finally be resolved in a way that’s consonant with this community’s sense of justice and in accordance with the values of this academic community.”