Gross Miscarriage of Justice

Feminist philosopher Louise Antony is one of the leaders of the Justice for Jason campaign.

Early on the morning of February 3, 2008, Jason Vassell, an African American student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was in his dormitory. Two intoxicated white men, Jonathan Bowes and Jonathan Bosse, approached Jason’s dormitory window repeatedly referring to him as a “nigger” and breaking in the window. They then forced their way into the dormitory lobby where they assaulted Jason, breaking his nose and giving him a concussion. Under this continuing assault Jason was forced to defend himself with a pocketknife, injuring his assailants.

As a result of defending himself against this unprovoked assault Jason, the victim of the attack, was charged with two counts of aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon. These charges carry a possible thirty year prison sentence. One of the perpetrators, Jonathan Bowes, was charged only with misdemeanors carrying a maximum eighteen month sentence. The other, Jonathan Bosse, was not charged at all.

There are lots of ways that you can help in the campaign. Most urgently at the moment, they need donations for the silent action to be held on 21 February (to help fund Jason’s legal defense). But there is also a petition. Finally, and very importantly, they need this to get as much media attention as possible. If you have a blog, please consider writing something about it! (Thanks to Sally for passing this on to me.)

18 thoughts on “Gross Miscarriage of Justice

  1. Here’s a copy of the email I sent to justiceforjason@gmail.com.

    Hello. I came to your site thanks to a post at the Feminist Philosophers blog. For reasons I will explain below, I will not be signing your petition, and I felt it was important that I explain to you why.

    First, I’m sympathetic to Mr. Vassell’s plight. Today is payday for me, so I will probably find a way to send a donation his way, to help him pay for his defence. But I’m uncomfortable with the approach taken in the petition, and I will not be signing it as it is currently written.

    Everything I know about this case comes from a half-dozen or so paragraphs on a partisan website. I haven’t seen any of the evidence, or heard any of the testimony, first-hand. I haven’t considered any of the responding arguments from other people involved in the situation. I’ve just spent five minutes glancing over a narrative on a website.

    In short, I don’t really know at all, at least right now, why the DA chose to file charges against this young man, but not the other two. Perhaps it was racially motivated, as the site suggests. Or perhaps these three young men have a history of mutual antagonism. Or perhaps Mr. Vassell was the one who intiated violence, in response to annoying but unthreatening verbal harassment. Or perhaps some other crucial detail was left out of the narrative that I read. There are simply too many other salient possibilities, and I haven’t done the hard work of comparing them to the evidence.

    Fortunately, I don’t have to do all this work. We have a system — namely, the criminal justice system — designed to determine guilt or innocence objectively and based on a thorough and due consideration of the evidence. In particular, if the DA is doing her job correctly, then we should assume that she has good reason to bring charges against Mr. Vassell, but not the other two men. And if his defence attorney and the judge and jury do their jobs, and he is indeed innocent, he should eventually be cleared of all the charges.

    This isn’t to say that we cannot be critical of the DA, or the criminal justice system more broadly. Certainly the burden of paying for his defence attorney is a serious one faced by Mr. Vassell. And certainly the criminal justice system as a whole has a shameful history of treating African Americans unfairly. The trust that, in the last paragraph, I said we should place in the DA is conditional, and I think a petition to encourage her to do her job correctly, and possibly even reconsider these charges, is entirely appropriate. A petition like this does not presume that we know better than the DA the facts of this case. It simply presumes that we are concerned, and want to encourage her to perform her task carefully and reflectively, in order to ensure that justice is indeed served.

    But this is not what the petition on your site says. It calls, simply and directly, for the outright dismissal of the charges against Mr. Vassell. In doing so, it presumes that the signer knows the details of this particular case better than the DA. And, as I explained above, I find this presumption unreasonable. Let us work to guarantee that he has a fair trial and receives justice the right way, not simply assume that he is not guilty based on the colour of his skin.

  2. There is a contrary piece in the college newspaper. The upshot is:

    – Vassell supposedly had been yelling racial slurs at the white kids earlier in the night.
    – One of the white kids and Vassell’s friend were attempting to hold the other two back; to stop the fight.
    – Vassell stabbed them nine times.

    Sounds like a tough case, and that Noumena’s letter was probably appropriate.

  3. There’s also a rebuttal of the contrary piece in the college newspaper. If you read the college newsletter, do read the rebuttal as well:
    http://www.justiceforjason.org/archives/32
    The integrity of Vassell’s supporters is severely attacked in the newspaper piece; the rebuttal raises equally serious questions about the evidence behind the attack.

    I am bemused about the idea of a black man yelling racial slurs at white men. What did he say? “Whitey,” “honky”? or “Charlie”? Gosh, sounds like something that would drive a young white guy wild. (JOKE!)

  4. We’ve discussed testimony and credibility a lot here. So I thought it was worth noting that one reason I was very quick to go ahead and post is that I really do trust Louise on this– she’s there at UMass Amherst, and she strikes me as someone who would be very sure of her facts before getting involved in something like this. But obviously, others here may not have this weighing in the balance, because they don’t know her– and don’t even know me.

  5. jj, I clicked the link, but unfortunately the article doesn’t seem to be posted there any more.

    All I have to say about this is “oh my god”. I am shocked.

  6. Greetings all,

    I was present at the university when this occurred. Jason is a former student of mine – he was briefly enrolled in my class the semester this occurred. By all accounts he is an outstanding student and a civic-minded young man who volunteers his time tutoring and works with the mentally disabled. He has no criminal record. His attackers, on the other hand, DO have a criminal record, which includes a history of racially motivated attacks. These men were not students at the university – they were drunk trespassers who started an altercation with Jason who was IN HIS ROOM minding his own business.

    Noumena, I’m not sure what to make of your mis-placed faith in the criminal justice system. Since when does is work as it is “supposed to”? Tell me, why should anyone have faith in a DA who refuses to charge one of the assailants, charged the second with a misdemeanor and slapped the victim with charges that can get him 30 years in jail? This is, of course, in spite of the numerous witnesses that corroborated Jason’s version of the events. Perhaps if you had spent more than 5 minutes glancing over the site before you posted you would have a different perspective.

    Perhaps you would then know that this campaign is not new, its been ongoing for close to a year – it has been thought about, talked about, planned and executed by people who have a great deal of love, care and compassion. Perhaps then you would that that there were numerous witnesses present, that the facts of this case, as presented on the site are true and not in dispute by the DA. Perhaps then you would know we tried talking to the DA – multiple times, under the assumption that she was a reasonable, rational human being. Perhaps then you would know that this campaign is the last resort of a community of people who could no longer stomach and collude with blatant racism.

    While I appreciate your willingness to help, I take issue with the paternalistic tone of your email. I further take issue with the fact that you feel comfortable making your email to the J4J campaign public when it is very clear that you are ignorant and poorly informed about this matter.

    Before you begin to talk about what *we* should be doing, *you* should do your homework. This means doing a little more than five minutes worth of reading. It will save everyone some time. It will also show that you have some respect for the group of people that have been organizing this campaign for the past year. Allow me to assist you:

    http://www.justiceforjason.org/wpcontent/uploads/2009/01/motiontodismiss.pdf

    That link will take you to the motion to dismiss recently filed by Jason’s lawyers. Take a moment to read it and you will see the overt racism present in this case from the beginning – not just from the two white men who attacked Jason, but also from some of the officers who responded as well. This is a legal document – it is based largely on audio and video recordings provided by the commonwealth of Massachusetts, which include statements from the two men who attacked Jason. And just for the record, a link to this document in on the homepage of http://www.justiceforjason.org. Its in the upper right corner under “Breaking News”. Had you been a bit more diligent in your reading, you would have found it I’m sure.

    While you are perfectly within your rights to question whatever you wish, as it pertains to this case, I ask that you do so respectfully. I further ask that if you intend to comment on this case further, be it in this blog, other blogs or other public spaces, that you take the time to read all of the information presented to you. Your poorly-informed pontification could have unfortunate ramifications. And finally, let me say that if this aint enough to convince you, keep your money. I will gladly make a donation on your behalf.

  7. … the link given above as a rebuttal from Jason’s lawyers is back.

    As someone who is on campus at UMass, it is easy for me to be more confident of the information I receive. But I also took the time to poke around a bit and read what was available.

    As for this statement:
    “it presumes that the signer knows the details of this particular case better than the DA. And, as I explained above, I find this presumption unreasonable.”
    … there are some problems.

    First, it doesn’t presume the signer knows the details better than the DA. That might be the case, but it also might be the case that the DA knows the details of the case quite well, and proceeds anyway. That, in fact, is the problem – and the issue at hand is “racism”, as has been pointed out.

    Second, by your logic, it is “unreasonable” to question the handling of a case by a DA. Is that how the real world works? Shall we defer to authority in every case? If we trust that every actor in our criminal justice system is acting appropriately, we are either being naive or negligent, and perhaps both.

  8. Many thanks, Tee, for stopping by and giving all that useful background– also for pointing us to the motion to dismiss. And Jeff– yes, there is indeed a worry that Noumena’s reasoning could lead to a very excessive deference to authority. Noumena– I usually agree very strongly with your comments, but this time I don’t. I’m not quite sure why you’re so dubious about the protests in this case, as my previous knowledge of you would suggest that you wouldn’t advocate deference to authority in general, and that you’re also very aware of the history of legal injustices, etc. (I know you advocate only a conditional trust, not a total deference, but I’m not clear on why you insist that this is still appropriate at this point.)

  9. I think this is a very complicated situation. One thing that’s unclear is the point of a petition to have the charges dismissed. Presumably, we don’t think the DA is going to say, “All these people are calling for dropping, so I guess I better.” Hopefully, she will think “All these people are calling…, it may be worth considering whether we’ve got this right.” However, the lawyers might be better placed to provide her really good reasons.

    IF that’s right, then what is the point of signing the petition. Well, perhaps quite a bit, but I’m not sure what the role of noumena’s out of state signature would be.

    Let me also express sympathy for noumena’s reluctance to present himself as knowing the DA has made a mistake, though I do this independent of any conditional faith in the system. My sole reason for believing the DA has made a mistake is that Louise Antony thinks he has, and I think she forms very measured judgments. Perhaps I can add to this the fact that these systems can be very racist. Though LA seems to me to be as credible as one gets, would this be enough to get me to take the action of releasing him, if I could do that? I really don’t think so. More process should be gone through. So why should it be enough for me to tell someone else to take the action.

    Please take this to be puzzling through issues, rather than taking definite stands. The more I think about it, the less I understand what is or would be the point of various things and/or how things should be played out.

  10. Tee,

    There’s a lot in your response, and I don’t want to turn this into a drawn-out, point-by-point debate. So I’m going to try to respond quickly to your four major points.

    First, I don’t think I have an inordinate faith in the criminal justice system. As I said in my email, `certainly the criminal justice system as a whole has a shameful history of treating African Americans unfairly. The trust that … I said we should place in the DA is conditional, and I think a petition to encourage her to do her job correctly, and possibly even reconsider these charges, is entirely appropriate.’ Certainly we should ask whether or not the DA is acting appropriately. But, unless we are either thoroughly cynical or thoroughly sceptical, determining whether or not she is, in fact, acting appropriately requires gathering evidence and assessing arguments.

    Second, your basic complaint is that I don’t know a great deal about this case, and the work done by you and your fellow advocates for Mr. Vassell. This is exactly the working premiss of my argument: I don’t know a great deal about this case, and I’m not in a good position to be able to know. For me to sign the petition, as it is written and given the knowledge I can reasonably have about this case (I’m studying for an extremely important exam, and don’t have the luxury of spending my free time reviewing all the evidence on your site, not to mention searching out contrary arguments and weighting the claims of both sides carefully), would be, I think, unreasonable and inappropriate. Similarly, I lack the legal training to evaluate the argument offered in the motion to dismiss in the short amount of time available to me, ie, to determine whether or not the DA is acting appropriately.

    Let me be clear: I am not making any general claims about what you or anyone else closely involved with Mr. Vassell’s case are in a position to know. I am only making claims about my situation, and those of people in a similar situation, vis-a-vis Mr. Vassell’s case. I’m not familiar with the relevant evidence and arguments, and I’m unable to make myself more familiar at the present time.

    Third, you say that I should not tell you what you should be doing. But at no point in my email did I tell you what you should be doing, except when I used `we’, referring to both you and myself. And I don’t think anything I said when I used `we’ implied that you should do much of anything different from what you have already done and are doing now, except for encouraging people who — like me — are not in a reasonable position to make the claims made in signing the petition. If I did so by mistake, then I apologise for the misunderstanding.

    Fourth, you have some scattered complaints about my tone — at one point you call it `paternalistic’, for example. This was certainly not my intention, and I apologise if my email did sound this way.

  11. Noumena,
    My overall point is this: Your post to this blog was based on willful ignorance. By willful I mean that there was plenty of information on the J4J website to speak to your concerns; you chose not to read it. That’s fine – however, you posted your email to the campaign on this blog, which then made your willful ignorance a matter of public discourse. As that email and your comments could have a negative impact on our efforts to prevent Jason from being unjustly sent to prison for 30 years, it is my responsibility to address them – should you choose to reply to the following comments, I will do so again. It isn’t personal.
    Below is my response to your four points.
    To your first point: We spent MONTHS encouraging the DA to do her job correctly AND encouraging her to drop the charges. By “we” I mean a coalition of students, faculty members of various academic departments, undergraduate and graduate student governments, the Massachusetts society of professors and the student trustee – all of whom did their own investigations and found the DA wanting. This information was available on the website. This petition is the second petition, the first having been already given to the DA. This information was also on the site. Further, this entire event happened in front of NUMEROUS witnesses in the community, all of whom told the same story. Again, this information was also on the site. You simply did not read it. When I said this campaign was a last resort, I was not kidding.
    To your second point: As I stated previously, the fact that you are ignorant about this case is willful. We try to include all of the information and articles that we can find, whether they are in support of Jason or not, and we post our reply. You may lack legal training, but do not underestimate your own intelligence. Some of the biggest idiots I know have advanced/terminal degrees. Most of the people that I know who have read the motion to dismiss (and other documents) don’t have legal degrees, however its pretty clear to everyone that there is blatant racism involved. If you don’t have time to inform yourself about this case, again, perhaps you should refrain from commenting on it in public places and spaces. And if you don’t want to sign the petition, don’t sign it. But to attempt to rationalize your decision with a based upon a perspective that you know is lacking is disingenuous to say the least.
    To your third point: In both your original post and your reply you use the language of “we” and “us” – at this point I’m not sure which “we” and “us” you are referring to. Perhaps you should try speaking for yourself which, for me at least, would clear up some confusion. Further, rather than encouraging J4J to rethink its petition, it would be far more helpful if you could to read the material that has been carefully prepared and presented by the campaign and encourage others who feel similarly uninformed to do the same. At least that way you will better understand how we have come to this position. We tried asking it didn’t work. So yes, now based upon a legal analysis of the evidence as presented by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we are demanding.
    To your fourth point: My comments about your tone were not scattered at all. I was very clear: I found your tone paternalistic. If you are going to apologize, please do so directly without the backhanded insult.
    The paternalism in your tone was the assumption that we didn’t do any of the things that you mentioned. It was the assumption that you, based upon your five minutes of reading, know better then the people who live and work in this community and who have been organizing this campaign for a year – do you understand? A year. Had you taken the time to read, you would have known this. You didn’t.
    I assume that you see yourself as an ally. If you can’t take the time to inform yourself about this campaign, so be it. But at least keep your ignorance to yourself because right now, you aint helping.

  12. Noumena’s comments were about the ability of JFJ to peruade potential supporters to view the situation as they do and to trust that their actions are the best at this given time (up front-that is) They were not a challange to the FACTS themselves or the result of a belief that she knows more than “the people who live and work in this community and who have been organizing this campaign for a year” While you did present your case in a way to win some of that needed trust; I really think you missed the ball here Tee.
    Noumena’s comments should be read as very helpful (rather than potential cause of “unfortunate ramifications” and her intentions should be read as good because she is bothering to communicate to you something that I am sure many others feel.
    When someone is asking me to support a cause I immediately look for evidence that I can trust them, because I either don’t have the time, knowledge or ability to do the research myself.
    First in winning my trust is that you will convince me up front that I should trust you! “The facts are this, you should trust that the situation is as I present it because of this, this and that. That’s treating the potential supporter with respect! Never assume that people with the same political views will unknowing trust that you are unbiased. (Many of us are and it’s for the good of all of us and what we hold dear to hold each other accountable.)
    You don’t need a law degree to know that a defense attorney does not present all the facts, she presents the facts favorable to her client, the prosectur disfavorable, and then jury/court is supposed to make a desition. So considering a defense attorney’s motion to be “evidence” (as stated on the site) of the truth is a screaming neon light!!; I can’t trust you! -Even if you are right. (Should I wait for you to post the Presecutor’s Reply to the Motion and then decide? :) I’m teasing you a little here.)
    p.s I don’t know Noumena, I’m going by the text, is that Reader Response lit theory? someone must know.

  13. dk,

    You write: “Noumena’s comments should be read as very helpful (rather than potential cause of “unfortunate ramifications”. I disagree, although I know that Noumena’s intention is to be very helpful. I think there are lots of interesting questions to be discussed about the epistemology of trust with regard to political actions, and will probably do a post raising some in the near future, thanks to comments form you, Noumena and jj on this post. Moreover, I think a private email conveying Noumena’s concerns might be helpful to the J4J cause. HOWEVER, Tee is absolutely right to worry about ramifications of Noumena’s comments. They’re trying to get signatures, etc v. urgently and to publicise their cause. I’ve put a post up. We’re a smallish blog, but sometimes we get things picked up and help them go very big (as with the Planned Parenthood/Palin thing). That could have happened with the post, and it may yet. But readers are likely to be far more hesitant about getting involved after reading Noumena’s comments, even though that’s not what he intended. So there are indeed possible (indeed likely) ramifications of what Noumena has written, and Tee is right to be concerned about them.

  14. Let’s say that Noumena really is as ill-informed as Tee claims. He is presumably not alone in this regard. In fact, I suspect that a great number (perhaps even a majority) of the people who signed the petition did not read all of the literature that Tee points to. (Indeed, Jender seems to have originally endorsed the JFJ initiative for no better reason than that Louise Antony happened to be involved.) And if Noumena’s criticisms are invalid on grounds of ignorance, why don’t we worry that many approving signatures may be invalid for precisely the same reason? Do you really think that Noumena’s alleged ignorance is somehow exceptional? I guarantee that many people have signed this petition who did not judiciously weigh all available evidence. That’s just how petitions are.

    More generally, Tee’s indictment of Noumena’s first post strikes me as unjustifiably censorious. Noumena may well be in the wrong, but he is undeniably engaged in a reasonable discussion in a reasonable manner. There is nothing inappropriate about that; he is not propagandizing. And even if some individuals decide not to sign the petition after reading his comments, it strikes me as obviously unreasonable to blame Noumena for hindering the pursuit of justice in that case.

  15. jender,

    i hear you but i think you’re overlooking the fact that many people feel the same as noumena and correcting the language of your campaign now could possibly gain those signatures and answering noumena’s fears publicly will help you to not lose those who you think might otherwise have signed.
    it’s not stated but i do think that making the criticism public functions as a word of warning to others but again, if people really should feel strongly about this and interpret it as you do, why not make a better case and keep asking for signatures? -you might even win follow up support.

  16. The Motion to Dismiss, recently posted on the Justice for Jason site, clears up a lot of the grey areas about this case.

    http://www.justiceforjason.org/wpcontent/uploads/2009/01/motiontodismiss.pdf

    It provides new information and is extremely convincing that the charges are racist and that Jason was acting in self-defense against drunk, crazed, men with a history of violence and racism. One astounding new bit of info: the same day as the attack, the Milton, Mass police department faxed police records of the two white men over to the arresting cops. These records show a pattern of violent, drunk, and racist assaults since high school. The cops ignored and suppressed this information and treated the white men as if they were innocent victims, and law-abiding Jason as the dangerous one–ordering him to stay away from the two attackers and putting him on house arrest, while allowing the two violent men to go free.

    Louise, would it be possible to post the Motion or a link to it right at the top of this page? I think it’s the single most informative article anybody could read about the case. I’ve been following this case since the very beginning, and I am predisposed to believe that the arrest of Jason and not the white men was racist. I’ve been reading the Justice for Jason site and almost every news and web or blog article. But since I knew that a lot of details wouldn’t come out until the video was shown at the trial, I kept the tiniest bit of openness to the possibility that something would come out that would portray the fight as a brawl among three equally-culpable men. Reading the Motion to Dismiss has removed my last shred of doubt that these unbalanced charges are the result of racist law enforcement, and that Jason was acting in self-defense. (Yes, as people point out ad nauseum, if he had run off and hidden in somebody else’s room, he wouldn’t have been attacked. But, first of all, not predicting an attack doesn’t make you responsible for it; second of all, he was attacked in his own home by intruders; and third of all, why should anyone know exactly what strategy would be best for dealing with a home-invading lynch mob of two and a corrupt, racist local “justice” system? It’s not like this kind of thing happens to most of us ever.)

    The Motion to Dismiss provides a lot of new information that is extremely convincing, not only that Jason was clearly acting in self-defense and that the white men were crazed attackers, but that the head cop was obviously racist. New info includes that the seargent referred to Jason as a “donkey” and assumed he was a drug dealer with absolutely no evidence of that. I think from now on the media efforts of Justice for Jason and all of Jason’s supporters should focus on getting this Motion to Dismiss out into the public eye as much as possible.

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