NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – For more than two years, supporters of former University of Massachusetts student Jason Vassell have urged prosecutors to drop charges against him that stemmed from a racially charged fight and sparked protests, demonstrations and accusations of bias.
On Friday, prosecutors agreed to do just that, if Vassell serves the rest of his 2 1/2-year pretrial probation, which ends in August.
To Vassell’s supporters, the decision to end the case against Vassell is a clear victory.
“If you are a Black man in a dormitory and someone is yelling racial epithets at you … you just do what you think is right, and that’s what Jason did,” said Jasmin Torrejon, a member of Justice for Jason, a group of UMass students, professors and others who supported him.
The case sparked passionate rallies in support of the biology major from Boston and accusations of racism against prosecutors and police.
Prosecutors, while acknowledging that race was a factor in the fight between Vassell and the two White men he fought with, said race played no role in their decision to bring charges against Vassell.
“It did not play a part in this case,” Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Dunphy Farris said.
After the agreement was announced in Hampshire Superior Court, the 26-year-old Vassell hugged and thanked a large group of supporters but declined to speak to reporters.
His lawyer, David Hoose, said Vassell has had a clean record and “done everything he should do” while he has been on pretrial probation for the last two years and four months.
“For two and a half years, he has proved himself to be the man that we told them he was,” Hoose said.
Although Hoose maintained that Vassell did not admit guilt, Dunphy Farris cited the written agreement between Vassell and prosecutors, in which he acknowledged that he stabbed John Bowes and Jonathan Bosse and that he had “other options” he could have chosen but did not.
“He signed an acknowledgment of regret,” Dunphy Farris said.
She said prosecutors, in agreeing to pretrial probation, considered medical records that showed Vassell was intoxicated and suffered a broken nose in the fight. She also cited Vassell’s school records, which she would not disclose. Together, she said, “those stressors bore on his state of mind” when he stabbed the two men.
“I think it’s a fair resolution based on all the facts and circumstances of this case,” she said.
After the hearing, an 11-minute video of the fight was made public. The video, captured by two security cameras inside the dorm’s lobby, shows Vassell wearing a hooded sweatshirt and ski mask and carrying a knife.
The video shows the three men arguing as Vassell’s friend attempts to stand between Vassell and Bowes and Bosse. It shows Bowes punching Vassell in the upper body, then Vassell stabbing Bowes repeatedly. It also shows Vassell stabbing Bosse as he tries to help Bowes.
Prosecutors originally charged Vassell with armed assault with intent to murder. But a grand jury indicted him on a reduced charge of aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.
Both Bowes and Bosse required emergency surgery. Dunphy Farris said both men have endured what she called an “unwarranted” attack on their character.
Prosecutors acknowledged that Bowes and Bosse, on campus to visit friends, were drunk early the morning of Feb. 3, 2008, and that Bowes shouted racial slurs. Bowes, of Hancock, N.H., was convicted of misdemeanor disorderly conduct but acquitted of a civil rights violation and given a year of probation. Bosse was not charged.
Vassell told police he was in his ground-floor dorm room with friends when the two men tapped on his window to ask for directions. He said that, after an argument broke out, the two men smashed his window and taunted him with racial insults. Vassell, feeling threatened, called a friend from a neighboring dorm for help.
He said he grabbed a knife and went to his dorm lobby to open the door for his friend. When he did, the two White men came in looking for the stairwell to get to their friend’s room and the fight broke out.
Vassell left UMass after being charged and now lives in Boston, where he has been working for his father’s electrical company.