Racial attack sparks rally on Mass. campus

UMass student Talleen Navarian shouts chants into a bullhorn as she and other students and staff rally through campus in support of Jason Vassell, a 23-year-old black UMass student who supporters say has been excessively charged.
UMass student Talleen Navarian shouts chants into a bullhorn as she and other students and staff rally through campus in support of Jason Vassell, a 23-year-old black UMass student who supporters say has been excessively charged.

AMHERST, Mass. (AP) -- 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.

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 They plan more rallies to keep up pressure on authorities to review the charges against Vassell, who has withdrawn from school and is living at his mother's home in Boston with electronic monitoring and a 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew.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 and said she was in his room the night of the fight.

The altercation began when Vassell noticed the two men outside his ground-floor window, she said. They began to taunt him, she said, 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, Kelley said.

Vassell suffered a broken nose and was treated and released from a hospital.

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 6" case in which six black Jena 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 Jena, La.

"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.

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The Associated Press and CBS News contributed to this report.