No Stranger to High-Profile Cases, DA Takes on Accused Bishop

By Adam Gorlick
Associated Press, carried in Providence Journal [Springfield MA]
Downloaded March 29, 2004

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) - He started out defending the accused. Murderers, robbers, rapists, mobsters. They all found a capable attorney in William Bennett - first as a public defender, and later when he was in private practice.

But after 15 years, Bennett felt like he was working for the wrong side. By 1990, he was ready for a change. He ran for district attorney and won.

"I felt more comfortable representing victims," Bennett, 56, said. "Their stories were the truth, and I wanted to be on their side."

His 13 years as Hampden County's top prosecutor have put Bennett at the forefront of the region's most heinous crimes. A serial killer, cop killer and murderous drug dealers are serving life sentences because of Bennett's prosecution.

Now, he could find himself trying to convict a less likely defendant: a retired Roman Catholic bishop.

Three weeks after Bishop Thomas Dupre was confronted by The Republican newspaper in February with allegations that he molested two boys in the 1970s, Bennett announced he would pursue sex abuse charges against the 70-year-old cleric. Since then, Bennett has refused to comment on the case.

If a grand jury indicts him, Dupre would become the first bishop charged in the sex scandal that engulfed the Roman Catholic Church two years ago. Dupre retired a day before the allegations surfaced and has not made any public statements since.

Bennett's push for indictments came after he personally interviewed the alleged victims - a task many district attorneys leave to lower-level prosecutors.

"I'm sure he will continue to be very hands-on in this case," said Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, who is also president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association and has known Bennett for more than 20 years. "He knows this is a high-profile case, and some might say he's appearing to grandstand and get the publicity and attention for it. But his decisions aren't based on the court of public opinion, they're based on what he thinks is right course of action."

A 1974 graduate of Suffolk University Law School, the Ansonia, Conn., native settled in Springfield as a public defender. A few years later, he went into private practice, handling criminal and personal injury cases.

And when Bennett started mulling a career change in the late 1980s, his colleagues weren't surprised.

"He began to get more comfortable doing the personal injury cases than doing criminal defense work," said Michael Jennings, who was Bennett's law partner in the mid-1980s. Jennings is Dupre's lawyer, but won't comment on the case.

Bennett and Jennings say their history has no bearing on the many times they've faced off in criminal cases, and both have cited a deep respect for one another.

"He was as zealous as a defense attorney as he is as a prosecutor," Jennings said.

Bennett made the jump from defense attorney to district attorney at a time when the DA's office was ripe for change.

Matthew Ryan, who held the job for 32 years, decided not to seek re-election when questions arose about his handling of organized crime cases and his personal relationship with reputed Mafia boss Adolfo Bruno. Bennett once represented Bruno and later prosecuted him, albeit unsuccessfully.

Bennett promised to restore the public's trust in the DA's office, and a vote for him in 1990 was, to an extent, also a vote against the old-boy network represented by his predecessor.

"Bill cleaned up that office and he's kept it clean," said Michael Kogut, who ran against Bennett in 1990. "He never let any political, emotional or other outside influences and distractions enter into his decision-making process."

Serving as district attorney was a job Bennett said he would take for just two four-year terms. But he decided against returning to private practice, and has run unopposed for re-election three times.

Asked to name his biggest cases, and Bennett lists four: the 1999 murder of Holyoke policeman John DiNapoli; the case against Alfred Gaynor, a serial killer who strangled four city women in 1997 and 1998; the 1993 murder of Joan Andres, a 27-year-old lawyer who was fatally shot and stabbed in her Springfield apartment; and the 1991 slaying of 19-year-old Daniel Larson in a drug deal gone bad in Holyoke.

Each case drew intense media attention and was prosecuted personally by Bennett. Each case ended with a conviction.

"I was a trial attorney. I enjoy trying cases," Bennett said, adding that it's too soon to say whether he'll stand in the courtroom against Dupre if the bishop is indicted.

But not every high-profile case of his career won Bennett praise.

Leaders of Springfield's black community criticized Bennett's handling of some cases with racial overtones.

One instance occurred in 1997, when white police officer Jeffrey Asher was videotaped kicking a black suspect being arrested.

A district court judge dismissed assault charges against Asher after finding he did not use excessive force. After reviewing the videotape, Bennett agreed that excessive force was not used and declined to bring the case to a grand jury.

Darnell Williams, who was president of the local NAACP chapter in the 1990s, said Bennett didn't pursue charges against Asher because the man he kicked, Roy Parker, had a criminal record.

"If (Parker) were someone of a more prominent standing, then the outcome would've been different," said Williams, who is now president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. "That will always be a question mark in the effectiveness of Bill Bennett in my mind."

Others who have dealt with Bennett say he isn't swayed by political motivation or public opinion.

Former Mayor Michael Albano, who worked with Bennett on gun buyback programs and other anti-crime programs but fought with him over a needle exchange program the DA opposed, credits Bennett for being "extraordinarily fair."

"He doesn't go for an indictment just for the sake of doing it," said Albano, who supported Kogut, Bennett's opponent in 1990. "And I'm sure it was not an easy decision for him to go to a grand jury in the Dupre case. But if you know Bennett at all, you know he's going to do the right thing."