UMass Amherst Students Wait on Justice for Jason Vassell

Caleb Nelson

When Jason Vassell, a black UMass Amherst student, stabbed two drunk white kids from Milton with a pocketknife a year and a half ago in his dorm on campus, Police guessed at what was going on from the get go.

“It looks like a drug deal. Some deal was going on. It wasn’t a normal, random thing. This guy was waiting in the hallway for these other two guys to come,” said the officer briefing the on-call Lieutenant, Robert Thrasher, after the stabbing at 5:45am.

If Massachusetts judges decide false assumptions and a series of miscommunications and misrepresentations of evidence show racism on the part of the police who investigated these stabbings, then the case against Jason Vassell could crumble within the next few months. But for now Vassell faces 30 years in prison, and his claim of self-defense.

Early in the morning on February 3, 2008, Jonathan Bosse and his friend John Bowes peered through a first floor dormitory window on the UMass Amherst campus. Inside Jason Vassell, a biology major at the time, sat in his room talking with two female students from the room next door.

The two men, according to their later statements, drove from Milton (they were not UMass Amherst students) to attend a party in their friend’s dorm earlier that night. They left the party drunk around 4am in search of two female friends living on the upper floors of Vassell’s dorm, whom they had arranged to stay with earlier that night.

The two men outside of Vassell’s window asked to be let into the dorm. Vassell refused. Then, according to Vassell and the two women who were with him, the men became belligerent, asking the women (who were white) what they were doing in the room with a “dirty nigger” and telling Vassell to come out and fight.

Then one of the men broke Vassell’s window, and both retreated into the dark. Calling his friend, Vishan Chamanlal, for support, Vassell put a small knife he used for electrical work into his pocket, and left his room to talk to the building’s RA.

Conflicting testimony sullies an entirely accurate account of the series of events that followed. Ultimately, security cameras watched as Bosse and Bowes caught the door behind Chamanlal when he came in to meet Vassell. They followed Chamanlal into the dorm, and attacked Vassell, breaking his nose. Vassell reacted by stabbing both men with his pocketknife, and ran behind an interior door.

Neither Bosse nor Bowes remember using the “N-word” until “maybe” once they were inside the building, but they both remember Vassell yelling “get the fuck out of here” and “I’m going to kill you.” According to them he was wearing a mask and waiting in the lobby to attack them.

Bowes’s statement changed twice over the course of the investigation, and Bosse had a blood alcohol content of .26%. His testimony was garbled and conflicted with some aspects of Bowes’ testimony. Bowes was later tried for assault and a civil rights violation, but the charges were dropped because of testimony given by a police officer that investigated the stabbing.

Later, on the day of the stabbing, Vassell’s family drove him to the police station to file charges against Bosse and Bowes. Upon reaching the station, he was arrested for two counts of attempted murder. The charges were later dropped to two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years each.

The courts are currently tied up investigating claims from Jason Vassell’s defense, saying the case against him should be dropped because the Commonwealth’s decision to prosecute Vassell was motivated by his race, and as a result the investigation overlooked many of the facts in the case.

The defense offered this statement in their fifty-one-page motion to dismiss the case: “The prosecution ultimately made [the decision to prosecute Vassell] based on the race of the parties involved. In doing so, it disregarded principles embodied in our state and federal constitutions that prohibit the discriminatory enforcement of impartial laws. As a result of this equal protection violation, the above-captioned matter should be dismissed.”

To find out more about Jason Vassell’s case visit