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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Former UMass Amherst student awaits trial after on-campus assault; race allegedly factor

A committee of students, faculty, and community members in Amherst are rallying for justice on behalf of former University of Massachusetts Amherst student Jason Vassell, 23, who awaits trial on charges of battery and assault after being the victim of an alleged hate-crime.

If convicted, Vassell could face up to 30 years in prison.

The ‘Justice for Jason’ committee-part of the western Massachusetts coalition for ‘Justice for Jason’ which includes UMass Amherst faculty, members of the university’s student government, and volunteers-has been organizing students and Amherst residents by way of press-conferences, teach-outs, concerts, and rallies since late February in hopes of mobilizing community support for Vassell before his pre-trial hearing in mid-December.

According to university police reports, Vassell, an African-American, was confronted by two Caucasian men-both of whom had been drinking alcohol-John Bowes, 20, and Jonathan Bosse, 19, in his residence hall February 3. After an allegedly unprovoked Bowes shouted racial slurs at Vassell and physically assaulted him breaking his nose, Vassell, in alleged self-defense, stabbed both men.

Later that day police arrested Vassell, charging him with two counts of aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and two charges of armed assault with intent to murder.

Elizabeth Scheibel, the District Attorney in the case, dropped the latter charges in March.

That litigation is one that Joe Mirkin, a UMass Amherst student and member of ‘Justice for Jason’, said speaks volumes for Vassell’s case.

“The fact that the two charges of intent to murder were dropped against Jason suggests a lack of evidence to show that Jason acted to instigate or prolong the incident,” Mirkin said. “At this point, the petition to the DA that she drop the case against Jason [entirely] has collected over 2,000 signatures.”

Out of Bowes and Bosse, only Bowes faces charges of disorderly conduct, civil rights violations with injury, and assault and battery to intimidate with bodily injury. Since neither Bowes nor Bosse are UMass Amherst students, Mirkin said he is surprised the University hasn’t pressed separate charges against them.

“It is also important to point out that the University has taken no punitive actions towards either Bowes or Bosse, both of whom were, at the very least, trespassing on campus the night they attacked Jason.”

According to Mirkin, since the outpouring of support for Vassell and the coalition trying to bring him justice is so widespread-reaching from Amherst to communities like Northampton, Florence, Greenfield, Holyoke, and Springfield-whatever happens in his case will affect the way hundreds of people view the Massachusetts criminal justice system.

“If a perceived injustice is done unto Jason, that may well be an injustice done unto the community at large-and the DA should recognize that, particularly when she is up for re-election,” he said.

Mirkin is astonished at how a simple case that should be governed by simple common sense went terribly awry.

“What has happened to Jason is the exact opposite of what logic dictates should occur,” Mirkin said. “The message to him from the criminal justice system and the University is: by acting to defend yourself in the face of racist verbal and physical assault, you are a criminal.”

Although he said he believes it’s possible that Scheibel could throw Vassell’s case out of court, Mirkin remained concerned with the message she was sending-by not prosecuting Bowes or Bosse to the same extent as Vassell-about racially-fueled crimes in an area long-believed to be mostly free of racism.

“One look at the message boards on web pages hosting news about Jason’s case illuminates the deep racial tension and racism that permeates the sleepy west of ‘liberal’ Massachusetts.”

The union representing UMass Amherst professors has begun circulating a petition to the administration to re-instate Jason in school after he less-than-willingly withdrew following his arrest one semester shy of graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology, Mirkin said.