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Michael T. Kelly, attorney known for fighting spirit, dies at 72

Michael T. Kelly was a hard-nosed prosecutor with the fighting spirit of a Golden Gloves boxer.

Over a period of three decades, the Buffalo attorney handled dozens of difficult, high-profile cases – including criminal prosecutions of pimps and gangsters, vicious killers, police officers accused of brutality and unscrupulous nursing homeowners and employees. Mike Kelly didn’t always win his trials, but he never gave up easily.

Mr. Kelly died Tuesday at Hospice Buffalo in Cheektowaga following a 12-year battle with colon cancer. The Buffalo resident was 72.

Old friends such as former Buffalo Courier-Express reporter Tony Farina recall Mr. Kelly as a tireless advocate for crime victims. Farina remembered when Mr. Kelly squared off against his buddy and rival, the late defense attorney Robert M. Murphy, during an intense criminal trial in the 1970s.

“Mike and Bob were really going at each other one day in the courtroom,” Farina said. “At one point, they went back into chambers to meet with the judge. Voices were raised, and things got out of hand. Suddenly, you had these two lawyers rolling around on the floor, wrestling with each other. Court security officers had to come in and break it up. A few hours later, Mike and Bob were in Marotto’s Bar together, buying each other beers.”

Born and raised in South Buffalo, Mr. Kelly had boyhood dreams of becoming a priest. He studied for the priesthood for five years but then decided against it. He graduated from Albany Law School in 1973.

He then spent eight years in the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, where he handled some of the most publicized criminal cases of that era.

In 1974, Mr. Kelly prosecuted three white police officers who were accused of beating a black prisoner in their police station on Genesee Street. A jury acquitted the officers on all charges. In 1975, Mr. Kelly led a major prostitution investigation that resulted in 30 convictions.

In 1977, Mr. Kelly prosecuted two Buffalo police officers for their off-duty participation in the beating and stomping death of Richard Y. Long following a traffic incident that erupted in North Buffalo after a stag party attended by many off-duty officers. The two officers and a friend of theirs took guilty pleas and went to prison. It was one of the most publicized criminal cases in the city’s history, and it led to some rancor between police and the DA’s Office.

Mr. Kelly said the prosecution that made him most proud was the 1980 murder conviction of Johnny K. Moore, a previously convicted sex attacker who raped and killed a 60-year-old businesswoman in an Amherst parking lot. A bite mark on the victim’s body was a key piece of evidence in the trial, and Mr. Kelly said it was one of the first cases in the nation in which bite-mark evidence was used to convict a killer.

From 1981 until 2003, Mr. Kelly served as the state attorney general’s chief prosecutor for nursing home crimes in Western New York. He prosecuted dozens of nursing home workers who abused and injured patients, and some of his major cases resulted in millions of dollars in fines or restitution for nursing home owners who failed to provide proper care.

After retiring from the state Attorney General’s Office, Mr. Kelly began doing criminal defense work. In 2004, he handled a case that made national headlines when he defended Jayson Williams, a former National Basketball Association star who was accused of manslaughter after the fatal shooting of a limousine driver. Williams, who contended that the shooting accidental, was acquitted of manslaughter. After a long series of legal battles, he pleaded guilty to assault in 2010 and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

In recent years, Mr. Kelly had partnered with one of his sons, Sean, in a Buffalo law office. Mr. Kelly was a patient and close friend of Dr. Michael M. Baden, a famous medical examiner who worked on major murder cases across the nation. “I’m Baden’s only living patient,” Mr. Kelly joked to a reporter about a year ago.

“He was my mortal enemy in the courtroom, but a good friend outside it,” said Buffalo attorney Paul J. Cambria Jr., who vied many times in court with Mr. Kelly.

Mr. Kelly is survived by his wife of 27 years, the former Ellen Dallmann; three sons, Sean, Kevin and Michael; a stepdaughter, Kelly Mahoney; a stepson, James J. Mahoney; two sisters, Maureen and Theresa; and two brothers, Edward and Kevin.

A memorial service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Sieck & Mast Funeral Home, 250 Orchard Park Road, West Seneca.