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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

DA's Race Money Trails

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Thursday, August 31, 2006

Attorney Judith Knight
The Berkshire County District Attorney election campaign is being waged along a clear divide; incumbent District Attorney David F. Capeless supports mandatory sentencing laws and has said that he will introduce an anti-gang initiative to combat street crime in Pittsfield and North Adams if elected to a four-year district attorney term. He has prosecuted many first-time non-violent drug offenders to the full extent that the law allows.

Berkshire County District Attorney David F. Capeless
Capeless was appointed interim Berkshire County District Attorney by Gov. Mitt Romney in 2004 after the unexpected death of District Attorney Gerard Downing. Capeless went on to win a special election later that year and has carried out the remaining two years of Downing's term.

Challenger Judith Knight has spoken against Capeless on several fronts, including the use of mandatory minimum sentences and his prosecution of first-time drug offenders. Knight is a private practice attorney who has served as an assistant district attorney in the Boston area prior to moving to the Berkshires. She has said that she believes in alternative punishments for first-time non-violent drug offenders that do not require incarceration and supports court-sanctioned drug treatment for first-time offenders.

The Berkshire County District Attorney's race will be decided during the state's Sept. 19 primary election. Registered voter supporters of each candidate must cast their district attorney election ballot during that election.

Knight Campaign Contributions

A review of each candidate's campaign contribution report, filed at a Internet web site, show financial support is also clearly divided, with Knight receiving more out-of-county dollars than Capeless.

Knight contributors include Mathilde Krim, a founding chair of the American Foundation for AIDS Research and a Drug Policy Alliance executive board member, Virgin Records CEO Jason Flom, also a Drug Alliance Policy board member with a listed address of New York, New York who donated $500, and Drug Alliance Policy Treasurer Richard Wolfe, who listed Los Angeles, Calif. as his address and also dropped $500 into Knight's campaign bucket.

The DPA is "the leading organization in the United States promoting alternatives to the war on drugs," according to it's Internet web site. A DPA goals list includes "repealing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses and ending incarceration for simple drug possession," " criminal penalties for marijuana, except those involved with distribution of drugs to children," "ending racially discriminatory drug policies and enforcement measures," "removing obstacles to proper use of opoid and other medications for the treatment of pain and terminal disease," "ending asset forfeiture abuses; restoring constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures," and "making marijuana legally available for medical purposes."

Knight campaign staffer Whitney Taylor and Knight responded to telephone calls seeking information about campaign contributions. Knight said that numerous contributors who live away from the Berkshires are family members, friends, or are linked through education or professional involvement.

She did not seek contributions from drug law reform groups, she said. She is not acquainted with Krim and met Jason Flom once, she said.

"I met Jason Flom at an event," she said, and added that she did not know of his involvement the DPA. "I didn't know that specifically. I knew Jason Flom was in progressive politics."

Knight said she believes that some of the contributions came from people who own second homes in the Berkshires. There is a growing number of "very sophisticated people" who are interested in Berkshire matters and have strong connections to the region. And there has been a "tight connection" between people from New York and the Berkshires for years, she said.

Supports Medicinal Marijuana

Knight emphasized that she has based her campaign on change. She has been extremely up front about her beliefs, she said.

"This campaign is about change and a focus on prevention," she said.

She supports medicinal marijuana use but does not support across-the-board- marijuana decriminalization, she said.

Knight reiterated that she does not support the way Capeless handles certain situations. Charges punishable with a minimum mandatory sentence may not be lodged as a lone charge; the charge must be accompanied by a separate charge, Knight said.

"[District attorneys] have all the leeway," she said, and added that the school zone drug violation charge is being overused.

The spirit of the law, which was implemented in 1989, is being violated in many cases, she said, and she cited situations of police deliberately stopping vehicles within a school zone.

If any drugs are found during a search, a school zone drug violation may be lodged in addition to other charges, even if the vehicle occupants had never used or sold drugs in that area prior to the stop, she said.

"They don't have to make that charge," she said. "They can ignore it. They have another charge. And DA's use their discretion every day, [for instance] whether to charge someone with murder one or murder two."

Knight said there are many people who support her approach.

"It's not just about mandatory minimums and drug sentencing," she said. "It's about a different approach, a package deal."

Allowing alternative sentencing for first-time non-violent offenders will enable courts to focus on violent, dangerous offenders, she said.

"It will free us up to handle other things."

No "Special Interest," Says Taylor

Taylor is the former executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts and has been active with the Concerned Citizen's for Appropriate Justice group, which formed after 19 Great Barrington area youth were charged during a 2004 drug "sting." She is active with other drug law reform groups as well.

The CCJ lists the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts and the Drug Policy Alliance as "partners", according to information posted at the group's web site.

Taylor left the executive director post in May to open a consulting firm that serves non-profit organizations invloved with social and criminal justice issues. She said that she elected to take a non-paid sabbatical from her work in July so that she could work on Knight's campaign.

During a morning interview, Taylor said that the Knight campaign hasn't made a "concerted effort" to link with any specific organizations. No organization or special interest agenda will benefit if Knight is elected, she said.

"The only people who will benefit from Judy being the Berkshire County district attorney are the people of Berkshire County," Taylor said.

Capeless Campaign Contributions

The majority of Capeless' campaign funds have been generated by Berkshire residents but his report also reflects out-of-county monetary contributions.

When asked about his contributors, Capeless said that those with the last name of "Capeless," "Kosheff," Bremner, and"Lagani" are relatives who support his efforts.

There are 10 additional "out-of-county"contributors currently listed and those individuals are friends or former colleagues, he said.

"And I appreciate their support," he said.

"I'm pleased to have a campaign based in this community, to be supported by families in this county who want to feel safe," he said. "I have a campaign backed by the people of Berkshire County who know I am doing the best job I can to protect the people of Berkshire County."

Those who have contributed to the Capeless campaign include Berkshire County Sheriff Carmen Massimiano, who made two $100 contributions, Assistant District Attorney Joseph Pierpan, who donated $500 on two separate occasions, and district attorney's office public relations spokesman Frederick Lantz, who also donated $500 on two separate occasions.

Opposed To Marijuana Decriminalization, Supports Youth Camps

Capeless left no doubt as to his position on illegal drugs and drug laws.

"I do not support the decriminalization of marijuana or other drugs," he said.

He does support youth interventions, such as school-based DARE programs and a North Adams-based Respect Other People Encourage Self-esteem [R.O.P.E.S.] camp, a Sheffield-based Cops and Kids camp, and a DARE camp operated in Pittsfield. The Berkshire County District Attorney's Office donates financially to the R.O.P.E.S. camp and the Cops and Kids camp and would provide some revenues to the DARE camp if funds were requested, Capeless said.

"The money used to support the camps comes from drug seizures," he said.

Capeless said he believes most Berkshire families agree with his prosecution premise.

"I have met an enormous number of people in Berkshire County and I've been sought out because of my work," he said. "I've been pleased and gratified to go throughout the county and get such a positive response. It's been gratifying to speak with people, hear their concerns, and I let the people at the office know that people appreciate the work we do."

Capeless and Knight offered observations about each campaign's financial reports.

Of Knight's contributors, Capeless said that he "wasn't surprised" that drug law reformists have contributed to the campaign and added that he was aware that the CCJ had connections with the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts and the Drug Policy Alliance.

Knight noted that several Capeless contributors were directly associated with or employed at the office that Capeless governs. She termed the situation "interesting."

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at or at 802-823-9367.

Your Comments
Post Comment
Nice reporting. It's good to see someone do their homework. Do you suppose there is some reason why the Eagle has not reported on this story? Rich liberals from the drug legalization/lobby group funded by convicted inside-trader and billionaire George Soros contribute significantly to a DA whose platform is to go easy on drug dealers...And the Eagle has nothing to say?
from: gilon: 09-05 00:00:00-2006

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