What is Justice for Jason?
Who is Jason Vassell?
What happened on February 3, 2008?
Why didn’t Jason call the police?
Who are John Bowes and Jonathan Bosse?
Did Jason know Bowes or Bosse?
How is Jason’s prosecution racist?
What is the Motion to Dismiss?
Where does Jason’s case stand now?
Who is Elizabeth Scheibel?
What does Justice for Jason do?
What is the UMass Administration’s position on this?
Justice for Jason is a nationally known grassroots campaign for racial justice based in Western Massachusetts. The campaign is made up of an eclectic mix of college students, community members of all stripes, other grassroots organizations, and many local political figures. The goal of the campaign is to see all charges against Jason Vassell dropped immediately. Current Massachusetts Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel has the power to drop Jason’s charges and continues to be the primary target of the Justice for Jason campaign. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has the power to intervene in Scheibel’s handling of the case on Jason’s behalf, and has become a secondary target of the campaign.
Jason Vassell was an African-American student at UMass Amherst. In early 2008 he was studying biology and was one semester away from graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree. After a violent hate crime incident on February 3, 2008 of which Jason was the victim, Jason was charged with two counts each of aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and armed assault with intent to rob or murder. Since February 2008 Jason’s charges have been lessened to just the two counts of aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. However, these two charges alone could land Jason in prison for up to 30 years. The backwards logic in this case of charging the victim of a hate crime has galvanized thousands of students and community members, locally and nationally, to take up the cry of "Justice for Jason!"
Additionally, despite Jason’s right to innocence until proven guilty, the UMass Amherst administration saw fit to treat Jason like a convicted criminal and force him out of the university. He has been unable to enroll in another college on account of the uncertainty of his court schedule, and has been working construction full-time to pay for his legal fees. As a result of the UMass administration’s actions, Jason’s academic career has been derailed along with his personal life. And all for being the victim of a racist attack.
Jason never had a violent incident in his entire life, nor did he have a criminal record. Yet, Jason has still been subjected to vicious racist stereotyping by hate mongers. He experienced vicious and violent racism on February 3, 2008; he continues to experience racism from white supremacist spectators, as well as through his ongoing agressive prosecution by Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel’s office.
Jason Vassell is someone who needs your support to fight racism in our society. Please join the campaign.
Very early in the morning on February 3, Jason was hanging out in his ground-floor dorm room in the Southwest residential area of the UMass Amherst campus. He was with two white female friends when a man’s face appeared at Jason’s window. The face belonged to John Bowes, formerly of Milton, MA and not a student at UMass. Bowes began taunting the two females with sexual innuendo from outside the window. When Jason asked the man to leave them alone and get away from the window, Bowes’ taunting turned to all out racist vitriol directed solely at Jason.
Unfortunately, John Bowes was not alone that night. His friend Jonathan Bosse, also of Milton, MA and also not a UMass student, was standing just behind Bowes and joined in the racist verbal assault of Jason. Bowes and Bosse had been drinking heavily that night at an off-campus party (recorded Blood Alcohol Content levels were 0.18% and 0.26%, respectively). Several eyewitnesses heard both men use profoundly offensive slurs toward Jason invoking images of slavery and lynching, i.e. "You’re a dirty nigger," "I’m gonna whip you," and "Your whole family is crap." Their insults were coupled with invitations for Jason to come out and fight them. Throughout this attack, Jason consistently told the men to leave him and his friends in peace and, upon explaining his discomfort to someone else in the dorm, the UMass Police (UMPD) were called.
When telling Bowes and Bosse to leave did not work, Jason pulled the shade down over his dorm window. Not five seconds later was his dorm window broken, from an external blow. Jason retreated into the secure hallway of his dormitory, extremely disturbed at what he’d been subjected to, and called a male friend to come help keep him safe. Jason’s friend arrived outside the dorm entrance and as Jason let the door open to allow his friend in, Bowes and Bosse ran out from behind a corner and made their way into the dorm lobby.
In the dorm lobby, Bowes and Bosse continued their unrelenting racist verbal assault on Jason. Bowes threw the first punch at Jason, breaking his nose. Bosse joined in the melee and also struck Jason’s friend in the head with his fist. Jason protested that he did not want to fight the two men. Only after suffering the broken nose and a concussion from the beating did Jason begin to defend himself. With a small pocketknife, Jason was able to fend off both Bowes and Bosse from delivering further physical abuse, and he retreated to a dorm hallway behind a locked door. When the UMPD arrived at the scene, they found Bowes and Bosse bleeding from minor knife wounds and pounding on the locked door, continuing to yell racial slurs at Jason and demanding that he "Finish the fight!"
Unfortunately, despite eyewitness statements that clearly showed Jason was the victim of Bowes’ and Bosse’s random violence and was only acting in self-defense, the UMPD did not see it that way. Jason left campus after the incident to receive medical treatment at an area hospital. When Jason returned to the campus police station later that afternoon to press charges against Bowes and Bosse, UMPD Lt. Robert Thrasher placed Jason under arrest. He was charged with two counts of armed assault with intent to rob or murder and two counts of aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.
According to the Motion to Dismiss (pg 9), Lt. Thrasher had previously impressed the idea onto subordinate police officers that Jason was a drug dealer attempting to rip off his unwitting clients, Bowes and Bosse. Thrasher continued to push this theory even after evidence emerged that no drugs were involved. Apparently after Thrasher talked to DA Scheibel’s office, his opinion changed and he made the resulting arrest.
As word got out about what happened to Jason, people were outraged. An extensive network of support sprang up on campus and in the local community. Close to fifty people showed up at Jason’s arraignment at the Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown, MA. Conversely, it took up to five days after the incident for the District Attorney to charge John Bowes with disorderly conduct, civil rights violations with injury, and assault and battery to intimidate with bodily injury. Jonathan Bosse was never charged for his role in the attack on Jason.
While Jason did not personally call the UMass Police after Bowes and Bosse started making racist threats, they were called on his insistence that the situation was no longer safe. Jason did manage to call a close personal friend whom he could trust to provide support after Bowes and Bosse verbally assaulted him.
While many people will fault Jason for not personally calling the police and instead calling his friend, the truth of the matter is that Jason felt his friend could provide more safety than the police. Whether or not one may judge Jason’s not personally calling the cops as simply "wrong" or "right" in hindsight is irrelevant. The fact remains that Jason was in his residence, peacefully enjoying himself with a couple friends, when John Bowes and Jonathan Bosse intruded on his peace, made racist insults and threats, and broke his window.
The sheer terror and anxiety Jason faced during the attack could be said to, at the very least, make him think first of getting his friend to protect him rather than calling the cops.
John Bowes is a white male, age 21, who used to live in Milton, MA but moved to Hancock, NH with his family several years ago. He currently attends private college in Arizona. Jonathan Bosse is also a white male, age 20, also from Milton, MA. Bosse, like Bowes, has never been a student at UMass Amherst.
Both men were loosely involved with a pseudo-white supremacist gang in Milton known as the East Milton Mafia. Both men have extensive criminal records of assaulting people, particularly women and people of color. The night of their attack on Jason, John Bowes had a blood alcohol content of 0.18% and Jonathan Bosse had a blood alcohol content of 0.26% (both well over the legal limit for operating a vehicle).
Not surprisingly, many of Bowes’ and Bosse’s initial statements given in interviews with police detectives are devoid of much information found in Jason’s and other witness statements. Bowes and Bosse simply claimed they could not remember much of what happened.
For his role in attacking Jason Vassell, John Bowes was initially charged with several misdemeanor crimes, including civil rights violation with bodily injury. Between February 2008 and Bowes’ trial in March 2009, several of his charges were lessened by the District Attorney’s office. On Friday March 13, 2009, a jury found John Bowes guilty of misdemeanor disorderly conduct for his behavior outside Jason’s dorm window. Bowes was acquitted of a misdemeanor civil rights violation. Suspicions exist around Bowes’ trial, not solely because his charges had been lessened significantly, but also because the incident where he and Bosse assaulted Jason in the dorm lobby was never discussed. The prosecutor in Bowes’ case (from the same DA office that is prosecuting Jason) argued to keep the lobby incident separate from the incident where Bowes and Bosse were outside Jason’s dorm window. There seems to be no logical explanation for this other than to say the DA had no interest in portraying Bowes as an aggressive criminal in one case, while simultaneously painting him as the innocent victim in Jason Vassell’s case. This contradiction is worth pondering.
Again, for his role in beating and assaulting Jason, Jonathan Bosse was never charged.
No. Prior to Bowes and Bosse showing up outside Jason’s window on February 3, 2008 there was absolutely no contact made between Jason and his assailants. Early statements given by Bowes and Bosse contain the lie that Jason and "an unknown Latino male"had run into Bowes and Bosse earlier in the evening and commenced insulting them for being white. Bowes and Bosse later recanted this part of their statements as false.
However, Bowes and Bosse did know each other. They were friends from Milton, MA and had participated in racist violence together in the past. Bowes and Bosse have also been linked to a pseudo-white supremacist gang in Milton known as the East Milton Mafia.
Strong evidence exists to show a distinct racial bias against Jason exhibited not only by the UMPD but also the District Attorney’s office, headed by Elizabeth Scheibel.
Regarding the UMPD’s bias, transcripts of police communications from February 3, 2008 show that Lt. Robert Thrasher naturally assumed Jason was a drug dealer, and Bowes and Bosse were his unwitting clients to be ambushed. Thrasher stuck to this assertion throughout the initial stages of the investigation into the incident, despite the lack of any drugs or drug buying money, or any other evidence suggesting Jason was a drug dealer (aside from the fact that he was a black male). Additionally, Thrasher’s voice is heard on police radio transmissions calling Jason an "asshole," a "donkey," and referring to his statement as "horseshit" (from Motion to Dismiss). The University has refused to investigate this evidence of Thrasher’s blatant racism.
Also made clear in the Motion to Dismiss is the oddly preferential treatment shown to Bowes and Bosse by police detectives. While interviewed from hospital beds, the tape recordings of these interviews display a very friendly dynamic between Bowes, Bosse, and their interviewers. Detective Hagan and Lt. Thrasher even joked around with Bosse about his blood-stained New England Patriots jersey after concluding their interview. According to the Motion to Dismiss, "The sympathy these officers conveyed during this conversation for the loss of Bosse’s cherished jersey was not only heartfelt; Det. Hagan deemed Bosse’s fondness for the shirt significant enough to note, in his police report, that Bosse acquired it in 2004 and had worn the jersey to parades commemorating Super Bowl victories" (pg 48).
Aside from the UMPD’s racist assertions potentially influencing the way in which the DA perceived the incident, there are reasons to think that the District Attorney’s office has also acted to selectively prosecute Jason based on his race. For the entirety of the argument on selective prosecution, PLEASE READ THE MOTION TO DISMISS [on the grounds of selective prosecution based on race].
In late 2008, Jason’s lawyers compiled dozens of pieces of evidence into a 52-page document titled Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion to Dismiss. The motion was submitted in hopes of having a judge rule that Jason’s prosecution was undeniably based on his race, and is therefore impermissible in court. To date, the Motion to Dismiss has not had its "day in court." An evidentiary hearing where Jason’s lawyers and the District Attorney can argue about the various bits of evidence cited in the Motion to Dismiss (and several other motions detailing a history of race-based selective prosecution in the DA’s office) is expected to take place in late summer or fall 2009.
Here is a brief table of contents of the Motion to Dismiss document:
INTRODUCTION, a brief overview of the February 3, 2008 incident …………………………………………………………………………………………….(1)
BACKGROUND, 28 sections full of evidence supporting the argument that Jason was the victim of a hate crime but treated like a criminal…………..(2)
STANDARD OF REVIEW, legal justification for dismissing a case based on selective prosecution ………………………………………….(35)
ARGUMENT, shows how Bowes and Bosse were treated far more leniently by the DA than Jason was…………………………………..(36)
CONCLUSION, the DA has engaged in selective prosecution based on race and this case should be dismissed …………………(51)
The Motion to Dismiss has been prominently featured as a major strength not only for Jason and the lawyers, but for the Justice for Jason grassroots campaign.
Where does Jason’s case stand now?
After receiving the go-ahead in spring 2009 from Judge Judd Carhart to access five years’ worth of DA files on interracial assaults and hate crimes, Jason’s lawyers were not surprised to hear that the current prosecutor, Elizabeth Dunphy-Farris, planned on appealing the decision. That appeal has already gone to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, where Justice Judith Cowin announced her desire to see more information from Judge Carhart about why he granted the discovery motion back in the spring. Currently the case is waiting on a ruling on the DA’s appeal to the discovery by Supreme Judicial Court Justice Cowin. This is tentatively expected sometime in July.
Assuming the DA’s appeal fails, Jason’s lawyers will then have the opportunity to sift through thousands of case files of interracial assaults and hate crimes from the past five years. The goal would be to derive a pattern of treating white criminal defendants less harshly than black criminal defendants, even in situations where the events are strikingly similar. Establishing this pattern of racial disparity will go a long way towards making the argument that Jason was prosecuted so severely (and Bowes and Bosse so leniently) because of racist bias in the DA’s office.
If the prosecution’s appeal is successful, it is likely that the arguments outlined in the Motion to Dismiss will have to stand on their own in exposing Jason’s prosecution as selective based on race. The Motion to Dismiss will likely be discussed at an evidentiary hearing where Jason’s lawyers have the opportunity to present detailed evidence of the DA’s racism towards Jason. The prosecutor will likewise have the opportunity to vindicate the DA’s office of accusations of racism.
Should a judge find sufficient evidence of selective prosecution, it is possible that the case against Jason will be dismissed. If not, perhaps the only other hopeful outcome is for Jason to be acquitted by a jury following a trial. Members of the Justice for Jason campaign do not expect a trial in Jason’s case anytime before Fall 2009.
Also worth noting is that the DA has decreased the charges against Jason since last February. The charges of armed assault with intent to murder were dropped, leaving the two counts of aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. If convicted of both counts, Jason could spend up to 30 years in prison. Additionally, at Jason’s arraignment in February 2008, the DA asked the judge to implement a litany of highly restrictive and unnecessary orders. Among them were: stay away from Bowes and Bosse, refrain from drugs and alcohol, submit to random drug screenings, live with his parents and observe a 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew. Needless to say, putting Jason on house arrest did not help the case that he was the victim of an attack. Rather, these measures served to hinder Jason’s personal and academic life as well as reinforce negative stereotypes about black males.
Elizabeth "Betsy" Scheibel is the current Northwestern District Attorney, representing Hampshire and Franklin counties in Western Massachusetts. She is a Republican who was originally appointed to her office in 1993 by former Northwestern District Attorney Judd Carhart. (Judd Carhart was elevated to a District Court judgeship in 1993). Scheibel has since run uncontested in four elections.
Betsy Scheibel has come under intense scrutiny in the last year and a half. Not only because of the Justice for Jason campaign, but also for other infamous prosecutions such as those of Andre Dewdney, John Robison and the case now known as "Pottygate."
Perhaps inspired by the public ire raised against Betsy Scheibel by the Justice for Jason campaign, a Democratic challenger announced his intention in January 2009 to run for the DA position in the next election. Dave Sullivan, Hampshire County Register of Probate, has cited Justice for Jason’s rally outside Scheibel’s office as a key sign of public unrest with how poorly the DA office is operating. In early June 2009 Scheibel announced that she would not seek reelection in 2010, saying that she made this decision after winning her last election almost three years ago. A day after Scheibel’s news, current Assistant District Attorney Michael Cahillane also announced that he would run for the DA position next year, pitting him against Sullivan. Both candidates are Democrats, but only Sullivan has expressed any support for Jason Vassell.
The main tactic of organizing the public to support Jason Vassell has been to turn out hundreds of supporters to Jason’s pre-trial hearings. These hearings have been taking place almost monthly since February 2008 and, with rare exception, have always been attended by a sizeable amount of Justice for Jason supporters.
Rallies and marches have also taken place both at UMass Amherst and in Northampton, where the District Attorney’s office is located. A petition calling on Scheibel to drop Jason’s charges has been in circulation for over a year now and has netted thousands of signatures. This petition is co-addressed to Martha Coakley, the Attorney General of Massachusetts.
In late April 2009, a delegation of Justice for Jason organizers met with a representative of AG Coakley’s civil rights division to present the thousands of signatures, letters of support from various organizations, and to ask for justice in Jason’s case. Coakley has the power to intervene in local DA matters if there is an egregious miscarriage of justice. It won’t take petition signatures alone to get Coakley’s help – we need to continue putting pressure on the AG’s office to intervene, as well as Gov. Deval Patrick’s office to influence Coakley!
In February 2008, Jason was informed that the February 3 incident left him with two options: voluntary withdrawal from the university, or forced expulsion. Jason’s lawyers advised him to take the voluntary withdrawal. That is what he did.
Several hundred faculty members have rallied to have Jason reinstated as a student at UMass. The group UMass Faculty and Librarians for Justice has petitioned Chancellor Robert Holub to make a public statement that the university supports Jason. Chancellor Holub has refused to do this and has deferred due to the fact that "all the facts are not yet out." This is almost identical to the statements Scheibel has made about the case. Additionally, Holub has used the fact that Jason "voluntarily withdrew" from UMass as reason to deny him the reinstatement that faculty and librarians are pressing for.
To date, no statement on behalf of the UMass Administration has been released denouncing what happened to Jason as intolerable racist violence. No charges were ever filed against Bowes and Bosse on behalf of the university for trespassing, assault, or property destruction (broken dorm window). No investigation has taken place into the racist inclinations of Lt. Robert Thrasher despite tremendous public outcry to do so. In short, the UMass administration has completely abandoned its obligation to make Jason Vassell, a paying student in good-standing, feel safe and secure on his campus or in his dorm.
Justice for Jason hopes that the university administration will one day realize the extended trauma it has visited upon Jason in refusing him an apology or reinstatement. Despite that Jason has said he no longer feels safe or welcome at UMass Amherst, either of these symbolic gestures would still go a long way towards demonstrating that UMass is opposed to hate crimes and racism.