Morris County prosecutor pursues justice, justice
Fredric Knapp draws on Jewish upbringing in curbing crime
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Fredric Knapp recalls the words of wisdom that hung in the office of John Harper, the retired Superior Court judge who brought Knapp to Morris County as an attorney decades ago.
“In his office, on the wall, he had a beautiful print that said, ‘Justice, Justice thou shalt do.’ That’s something I would say has been a part of my philosophy as an attorney and as a prosecutor, and obviously, it’s from the Bible,” Knapp said — Deuteronomy 16:20, to be exact.
He added, “Obviously, as prosecutor, our role is to see justice done, not to obtain convictions.”
On July 2, when he formally became Morris County prosecutor, Harper spoke at the swearing-in ceremony. (Gov. Chris Christie appointed Knapp acting prosecutor in December 2012, when Robert A. Bianchi’s term ended. State Senate Democrats agreed this year to end a standoff over the appointment.)
Sitting at a long table in the Morristown court administration building with NJ Jewish News, joined by first assistant prosecutor Thomas Zelante and chief of staff Daniel Pfeiffer, Knapp spoke about the major issues affecting Morris County and how his Judaism has shaped his values.
Knapp, 61, who lives in Randolph, has been a member of Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael since he and his wife, Ellie, moved to Morris County 25 years ago from Livingston. Their two children both celebrated becoming b’nei mitzva there, and Knapp said the synagogue’s cantor emeritus, Maimon Attias, is “a dear friend” as well as a neighbor.
Knapp, a NJ native, grew up in Irvington and attended the now defunct Beth David Jewish Center in Vailsburg, where he became a bar mitzva. “The last time I was in the building, for an Irvington PBA event, it was a social hall of some kind,” he said.
Regarding his early days in Irvington, he said, “The values I have grown up with definitely influence me as an adult. I can’t say specifically how they influence my job but they apply to me as a person.”
Knapp earned his law degree from Saint Louis University School of Law in Missouri, and worked for the public defender’s office there.
He served stints in a variety of criminal law settings, including as a deputy attorney general for the NJ Division of Criminal Justice and as a special assistant U.S. attorney focusing on organized crime in the late ’70s and early ’80s. For most of his career, however, he was an attorney in private practice specializing in labor and employment law. Most recently, he was a founding partner of the Florham Park firm Knapp, Trimboli & Prusinowski.
Knapp was eager to turn the discussion to his work, and he was quick to point to the heroin scourge.
“In Morris County the major issue is the heroin epidemic,” he said. “That is something that affects every community in New Jersey — suburban communities as well as urban. We are affected by it. Heroin overdoses occur throughout the state, and we have our share in Morris County.”
He takes pride in his office’s narcotics enforcement unit, and credits its targeted work with the decrease in overdoses from 2012, when there were 47 fatal heroin overdoses, to 2013, which saw a drop to 40. He predicts the 2014 number will be “significantly less.”
“To a large extent, this is because of stricter enforcement,” he said. “The enforcement unit has been a lot more active in terms of narcotics than in the past.”
And he credits a four-county effort that Morris County participated in with shutting down Paterson’s “open-air heroin markets,” arresting dealers, and confiscating weapons.
As for the national debate over decriminalizing marijuana use, Knapp only said, “I’m appointed by the governor, and until the law changes [in New Jersey], we enforce laws concerning all controlled substances.”
Touching on homeland security issues, Knapp said, “We’ve been very fortunate. I don’t recall any synagogue being a target.” Given hostilities in the Middle East, he said he has not heard anything worrisome, but added, “I would say everyone has to be attuned to developments. Concerns are always there, particularly during the High Holy Days. But I have no reason to believe there is any danger at this time.”
He’s grateful that murder is so rare — especially compared to nearby counties — that he feels he has to and can attend every trial. (Hours before his interview with NJJN, Knapp attended the trial of Anthony Novellino of Denville, a former security guard at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany, who was found guilty that day of stabbing his ex-wife to death.)
“We’re very fortunate that this is a third- and fourth-degree county,” Knapp said, meaning that the crimes committed are generally not first or second degree crimes, but those of a lower grade.
As the meeting drew to a close, he noted that now that his children are grown, living in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, respectively, it was a good time to go into public service.
“This is a great job with a great opportunity to hopefully make a difference and work with great people,” he said. “I wouldn’t change anything. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for many years, but this is an ideal time for us.”