Finally winning justice for Jason

June 11, 2010

AMHERST, Mass.--On June 4, two-and-a-half years of struggle finally paid off with a victory for Jason Vassell and the Justice for Jason campaign.

Trumped-up assault and battery charges against Vassell--an African American former student at the University of Massachusetts, who was arrested after defending himself against a racist attack--will be dropped, in return for Jason completing the rest of his two-and-a-half-year pretrial probation, which ends in August.

Vassell was involved in an incident in February 2008 when two white non-students, John Bowes and Jonathan Bosse, broke into his dorm room, yelling racial slurs and racist comments such as "your family were slaves." Jason sustained injuries in the attack, including a broken nose and a concussion--but he was charged with two counts of aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon.

The Justice for Jason campaign and Vassell's defense team have consistently pointed out the racism that was involved in the attack, the police report and the prosecution of this case. Video evidence shows that Jason was defending himself from the attackers with a pocketknife, and yet he, not the two white men who attacked him last February, was prosecuted on serious charges.

Only Bowes was charged with any offense in the attack on Jason--a misdemeanor civil rights charge that he was acquitted of in March 2009. The other man involved, Bosse, was never charged.

Despite the evidence that Jason Vassell was the victim in this incident, he has been forced to spend the last couple years in court battles to avoid a possible lengthy prison sentence.

If Vassell, his lawyers and the Justice for Jason campaign had not taken a stand against the racism they identified in this case, he could have faced 30 years behind bars. But as Jason's lawyer David Hoose said, addressing all those who opposed the prosecution: "All of you made this victory possible. You all proved how important it is for communities to take action against racist violence."

IN DECEMBER 2009, Vassell's lawyers submitted a motion to dismiss charges on the basis of selective prosecution, referring to the different treatment of Vassell received compared with the two white men. After six months of delays and rescheduling, the disposition hearing, where the judge would decide whether the motion to dismiss was appropriate or not, was set for June 4.

Organizers of the Justice for Jason campaign, concerned community members and allies have been attending every one of the pre-trial hearings of this case, but this one was different and the feeling of anticipation was palpable. The courtroom was packed, both inside and outside, with those who have been demanding justice these last two years.

Prosecutor Elizabeth Dunphy Farris said her piece about why she felt that there had been "unwarranted discrimination on the character" of the two white men who broke into Jason's dorm last winter.

But as soon as she finished speaking and the defense said they had nothing to add, the judge declared that the disposition was appropriate for this case. Jason was mandated to finish out the probation that he was sentenced to in February 2008.

As Hoose recounted, "We came into this courtroom saying that Jason shouldn't be tried for any offense, and that is exactly what has happened today." In two months' time, the probation period will be over, and Jason Vassell will be free at last--with no criminal record. The organizers of the Justice for Jason campaign have called for a celebration march on that day--August 3.

After court was dismissed, Justice for Jason organizers called a press conference where they discussed the victory and the need to continue organizing. Jasmine Torrejon spoke for the campaign and reminded all those in attendance of the systemic nature of the racism that Jason faced from many sides during this ordeal.

She pointed out that the District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel has been insistent on prosecuting Vassell and that state Attorney General Martha Coakley, who had the ability to stop this prosecution in its tracks, stood by silently and allowed for this injustice to be prolonged. In Torrejon's words, "This highlights the limits of the justice system in Massachusetts."

She also pointed out that the University of Massachusetts administration refused to take a stand to defend Jason, who was a model student--and in fact forced him to leave school because of this incident.

The campaign is demanding a public apology from Scheibel, Coakley and the UMass administration. In addition, it is demanding that Jason be invited back to finish his studies at the university.

Research is being conducted to find out how many more students of color have been victims of racism in local institutions in order to make steps towards fighting for justice on campus and in the broader Western Massachusetts community. Torrejon reminded us, "Today we celebrate, but tomorrow, the work starts anew."

The success of this campaign to free Jason Vassell should inspire all those fighting against racism in any of its forms. When communities take a stand and fight back, victories are possible.

Gary Lapon contributed to this article.

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