Berkshire district attorney's race: Knight thinks 'we can do so much better than what's happening in the courtrooms now'

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Editor's note: This is the last of three profiles of the candidates for Berkshire district attorney.

PITTSFIELD — With haste in her step, Judith Knight blew into Central Berkshire District Court just after 9 a.m. one recent Friday.

After scurrying into the clerk's office to retrieve documents, she met her client and a representative from the NAACP in the hallway to explain the next step in his case, picking a trial date.

Family of the man, who is in his 20s, said they remain shocked about how a call to police about a conflict with the man's stepdad had escalated to the point where the younger man was arrested on charges including assault and battery on a police officer. His mother described being terrified that night as her son was surrounded by responding officers, some of whom allegedly struck him during the arrest.

Knight's client is up for a promotion at work, but it won't happen until the case is resolved, she said.

She called this case a "perfect example" of something she, as a district attorney, would have sought to resolve before trial.

"I am solely in this because I believe in the criminal justice system and I believe it should be fair," Knight, 57, said at a recent meeting at The Eagle. "I want it because I think we can do so much better than what's happening in the courtrooms now."

Knight will face off in the Democratic primary Tuesday against District Attorney Paul Caccaviello, who has worked as a prosecutor in that office for nearly 30 years and replaced David F. Capeless when he retired in March, and Andrea Harrington, who has worked as an attorney for 15 years, including in post-conviction work, defense work and labor law. Barring any Republican write-ins, the primary will decide the race.

Knight, who is in private practice in Great Barrington, is the only candidate who served as a prosecutor, criminal defense attorney and mediator.

After graduating from the Washington and Lee University School of Law in Virginia in 1987, Knight began her career as a public defender in Colorado, where she worked for about a year. Then she moved back to her home state of Massachusetts and started working as an assistant district attorney in Middlesex County under Scott Harshbarger, and later Tom Riley.

"We would have walked to the end of a cliff with this guy. It was just a great office," she said of Harshbarger, who later became attorney general. "I want to have the kind of office that I got to work in with Scott Harshbarger and Tom Riley, where I'm empowering the assistant district attorneys to do the right thing."

Later, Knight returned to Berkshire County, where she grew up.

"Then I started dealing with the District Attorney's Office here, and the way that the defendants were treated, the way that the defense counsel was treated, is so far from what I had experienced in Eastern Massachusetts," Knight said. "There was a lot of disrespect for the defendants in the courtroom, I felt."

Prosecutors brought "a lot of petty, seemingly vindictive cases," Knight said, and were wasting time better spent on serious crimes.

In one of those cases, the one that prompted Knight to run for district attorney in 2006, Capeless twice brought to trial the case of a teenager accused of selling drugs in a Great Barrington parking lot. Knight was the teen's attorney.

Because of the parking lot's proximity to a church, which held day care programs, the teen faced enhanced "school zone" charges.

After a hung jury in the first trial, Capeless tried again to prosecute the case, but a jury found the teen not guilty. Knight and some legal organizations criticized Capeless for his dogged prosecution in the case.

"It was a protest run, basically," she said of her 2006 campaign.

Back then, there wasn't an audience for the progressive platform she was running on, she said, one that praised diversion programs and critiqued minimum mandatory sentences.

But in April, when the state passed a crime reform law that embraced policies she has been talking about for more than a decade, including making changes to the school zone laws, Knight felt that tides were changing.

Those changes even extend to how she feels she has been treated as a female candidate.

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"I felt it more in 2006, sort of a gender bias," she said. "I haven't gotten it as much this year."

A question that does keep arising, Knight said, is why she and Harrington, two women with progressive platforms, are running against each other.

"If there were two men running against Paul [Caccaviello] with similar philosophies, would this question be being asked?" Knight said.

Nonetheless, she said she is confident that her experience on both sides of the courtroom, and the two years running a local company after a friend's death, have given her the preparation she needs for the office.

If Knight is elected, she intends to use more alternative sentencing, like diversion programs, for some less-serious misdemeanors to give defendants the opportunity to get their life on track and avoid a criminal record. But the second chances don't just keep coming, she said.

"You only get one shot at diversion, and if they blow that, the case gets prosecuted the regular way," Knight said.

For the victims of those crimes, she also would give them the option to participate in restorative justice programming, where they can meet the defendant in a controlled setting and talk about the effect the crime had on them.

Those encounters tend to prevent recidivism among criminal offenders who sometimes realize for the first time the consequences of their actions, Knight said.

She also hopes to organize a domestic violence task force in which prosecutors will be assigned to the same case throughout its time in court, which Knight feels can ease the burden of victims having to retell their stories to multiple people in the same office.

There would be many changes to the office if she is elected, Knight said, starting with building a more diverse staff that includes Spanish-speaking prosecutors.

"What I would want for a first assistant [district attorney] is someone who is a little bit more hard-lined than I am," she said. "Someone who has been doing prosecuting for a long time, who knows the drill, who can try the hard cases."

"You can't just give everybody a hug and hope they'll do OK," she acknowledged. "There are serious people out there; dangerous people."

Having a competent first assistant district attorney trying serious cases would allow Knight to focus on crafting office policy, handling staffing and overseeing the workload.

"I've done battle with almost everybody in that office. I know who is good and solid," she said. "There are some good people in there, and I would like to see them stay, but not everybody."

Knight also believes there is an opportunity to expand prevention work that the office does in the community.

She plans to use drug forfeiture funds — it's money seized by law enforcement from alleged criminals — toward building a community youth center in Pittsfield and toward drug treatment efforts.

"Someone has to start that dialogue and put their money where their mouth is," she said.

Back in the courthouse, after setting a trial date for her client, Knight bounced up the stairs to her second case of the day, a driver charged with operating under the influence.

After a quick exchange with a prosecutor, she rushed back to the family of her client downstairs.

On her way, a forensic psychologist stopped her in a hallway.

"You've got my vote," he said.

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6077.


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