Supporters Rally for Mass. Student
By MARK PRATT,Associated Press Writer
AMHERST, Mass. — Faculty and students at the University of Massachusetts rallied Wednesday in support of a black biology student who faces attempted murder charges after a white man allegedly taunted him with racial epithets, broke his nose and smashed his dormitory window.
About 200 people gathered on the steps of the student union in support of Jason Vassell, who authorities said stabbed two non-students after he was provoked into an argument at his dormitory early the morning of Feb. 3.
|Amilcar Shabazz, Chair of UMass Afro-American Studies, speaks near a flower-filled fence, to students and staff who rally in support of Jason Vassell, an African-American student who they say has been excessively charged following a Feb. 3 on-campus fight, in Amherst, Mass. Wednesday, March 12, 2008. Vassell faces a hearing this Friday, while one of the two men who supporters say provoked the event at Vassell’s own dormitory room, has not been charged at all. (AP Photo/Nancy Palmieri)
The two men, John Bowes, 20, and Jonathan Bosse, 19, survived the stabbings and were not immediately charged in the fight — something supporters of Vassell, 23, note when they complain prosecutors were influenced by race in bringing the charges.
Vassell, who does not have a criminal or violent history, according to friends and faculty, was charged with two counts of armed assault with intent to murder and two counts of aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. Five days later, Bowes was summoned to court to face civil rights violations, as well as disorderly conduct and assault and battery charges. Bosse has not been charged.
“The behavior of the prosecutors would have been different if these two guys had been African-American,” said Michael Thelwell, an Afro-American studies professor at the flagship state university campus.
Assistant District Attorney Frank Flannery said the charges are brought “based on the evidence we have” and said he could not comment further on the pending case.
Bowes’ attorney, Alfred Chamberland, did not immediately return a call Wednesday. A message left at Bowes’ home in Hancock was not immediately returned. A man who identified himself as Jonathan Bosse’s father said his son would not comment.
Supporters of Vassell have created a committee and a Web site to raise money for his defense. They plan more rallies to keep up pressure on authorities to review the charges against Vassell, who has withdrawn from school and is living at his mother’s home in Boston with electronic monitoring and a 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew.
“Jason does not represent a danger or a threat to anyone,” said his lawyer, David Hoose.
Hoose said since the fight, more information has come to light. He would not elaborate.
“Police made an initial decision on what they saw that morning, but now after talking to witnesses and seeing surveillance video, a fuller picture has emerged of what happened,” he said.
Vassell was reacting in self-defense after Bowes and Bosse smashed his dorm-room window and called him racist names, said Tracy Kelley, who is Vassell’s girlfriend. She said she did not witness the attack.
Vassell told supporters the altercation began when he noticed the two men outside his ground-floor window, Thelwell said, adding that witnesses have corroborated Vassell’s account. The men began to taunt Vassell and broke the window. Vassell, feeling threatened, called a friend from a neighboring dorm for help. When he opened the lobby door, Bowes and Bosse entered, and a fight broke out.
Vassell suffered a broken nose and was treated at a hospital and released.
University police would not comment on why Bowes and Bosse were on campus.
Kelley said authorities are missing the big picture.
“When someone can threaten your well-being and safety and you can’t defend yourself, you’re skipping over something,” Kelley said.
Graduate student Anthony Ratcliff, who spoke at Wednesday’s rally, said the incident was indicative of wider societal problems where blacks are automatically assumed to be the perpetrators.
He recalled the “Jena Six” case in which six black Louisiana high school students initially charged with attempted murder after a 2006 assault on a white student. Charges were reduced, but the original counts caused complaints of harsh, racially motivated prosecution that led to 20,000 people marching in the town of Jena.
“This is not isolated or out of the blue,” Ratcliff said. “There are similar incidents that happen all over the country,” he said.
University spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said while he could not comment on Vassell’s case specifically that the administration is “concerned with all episodes of violence on campus.”
Vassell was scheduled to appear in Eastern Hampshire District Court on Friday. Hoose said he will ask a judge to change the conditions of Vassell’s release.
On the Web:
(This version CORRECTS that Kelley says she did not witness the attack. Also, Shabazz is correctly spelled.)
You can also find this article at the Daily Sentinel (Nacogdoches, TX): http://www.dailysentinel.com/hp/content/shared-gen/ap/National/UMass_Racial_Attack.html