You may have heard about Jason Vassell or read about him in the papers. His story is set in bucolic Amherst, Massachusetts and the surrounding area.
It’s a tale that feels like a modern-day version of To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee – now 50 years in print – a story that forced Americans to see themselves in a racially-tinged mirror and ponder the ways in which our system – and our silence – can perpetuate the most raw forms of racism in our communities.
In 2008, Jason was a student at UMass Amherst, a young man with no criminal history who worked as a volunteer with high-risk youth and generally stayed out of trouble.
But trouble found him – in the form of a couple of racist thugs who attacked Jason in his first-floor dormitory room in the middle of the night. Jason’s nightmare got worse when local prosecutors, rather than treat Jason – who is African-American – as a crime victim, instead charged him with the crime of using a pocket knife to defend himself. Overnight, he was staring at 30 years in prison.
So blatant was the miscarriage of justice in this case that the good citizens of Northampton and Amherst formed a “Justice for Jason” Defense Committee and hired the best two lawyers they knew to defend him: David Hoose and Luke Ryan.
"The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow." To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Chapter 23, spoken by the character Atticus Finch.
Hoose and Ryan are among the state's best criminal defense attorneys (in a part of Massachusetts known for its great lawyers). Both men live and know the lay of the land in the western part of the state. Both have a habit of challenging injustice when they see it – even when doing so is unpopular. They readily stepped up to defend Jason.
“Before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.” To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Chapter 11, spoken by the character Atticus Finch.
Like Atticus in the book, Hoose and Ryan harbor an abiding belief that it is possible to use the justice system to right wrongs. After reading the police reports, they realized that the truth of what really happened to Jason that night – and the injustice of his subsequent attempted prosecution– would be revealed in the glare of the public police and court records.
Indeed, the public record in the case reads like a Harper Lee novel, except that the facts are real.
On that night, Jason Vassell heard voices outside his first floor dorm window – loud, drunken, male voices – shouting racial slurs at him. It was dark outside, light in the room, making it impossible for Jason to see who – or how many – people were there. When the marauders smashed the window, shattering glass all around the dorm room, it surely must have occurred to Jason that his life was in danger.
He reacted in fright – phoned a friend to come over to help, donned a ski mask to hide his identity (and race), and grabbed his pocket knife, then ran to open the front door of the dormitory lobby where his friend had agreed to meet him.
The rest was both observed by witnesses and caught on videotape. In the dorm lobby, Jason encountered two white men – not from campus, not college students at all, and both with elevated alcohol levels and a history of alleged assault and batteries against people of color. Their names were John Bowes and Jonathan Bosse.
Entering the lobby, the larger of the two men punched Jason in the face, breaking his nose. During the ensuing fight, Jason used the pocketknife to defend himself against both men before fleeing behind the safety of a locked door to await the arrival of the police.
What followed can graciously be described as a racist circus involving the local police and prosecutor’s office. The cops immediately assumed, without any evidence, that Jason was a drug dealer. One police lieutenant is quoted in the record as calling Vassell a "donkey" and saying, "A couple of white kids go in and start harassing some poor black kid in his bedroom. Now how poor of a black kid he is, I don't know, because I think he is a drug dealer."
In contrast, the record shows that the police took a very different tack with Bosse and Bowes. They talked about Patriots football and joked that they wished they, too, could have "had a few beers" like Bosse and Bowes. "It's okay," Bosse told the police officer, "you can kid with me."
Then came the blow. When Jason showed up at the police station the next day, intending to press charges against Bosse and Bowes, the police instead arrested him. Local prosecutors charged Jason with two counts of aggravated assault and battery with a deadly weapon – charges which carried a maximum penalty of 30 years in state prison. Amazingly, the authorities also moved to detain Jason without bail as a person too dangerous to release under any conditions. Meanwhile, the prosecutors never charged Bosse with anything, and Bowes received only probation for disorderly conduct.
Based on these facts, Hoose and Ryan (along with the ACLU of Massachusetts) filed a motion to dismiss the charges against Jason, arguing that the prosecutors engaged in selective prosecution on the basis of race. The evidence was there -- clearly set forth in the public record.
Last Friday – two-and-a-half years after the attack – the Hampshire Superior Court finally ordered the case to be dismissed.
In exchange for publicly stating that he could have done something other than pull out his pocketknife that night and that he "regrets his actions that night," Vassell was given two and a half years of pre-trial probation, credited retroactively. In effect, his ordeal is over.
In the end, it’s worth noting a couple of key difference between the Jason Vassell story and To Kill a Mockingbird.
In the book, the townspeople stayed silent or turned against Atticus Finch. In real life, the people who formed the “Justice for Jason” committee stepped up – very publicly – to ensure that Jason Vassell’s rights were defended.
The endings of the two stories also diverge. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the African-American man, Tom Robinson, is unjustly convicted, tries to flee, and is shot in the back.
In real life – just this week – Jason Vassell is a free man, returning to his college studies and to his volunteer work with at-youth risk.
I hope that Jason is able to move on with a sense that the community in which he lives, while still and inevitably a product of America’s racist history, at least has evolved enough over the last 50 years that we are willing to acknowledge our collective responsibility when something goes wrong with the system. And I also hope Jason, as well as local police and prosecutors, knows that there are still those among us willing to stand up in public and set things right.
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