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Respected lawman Dillon, dead at 65, inspired by ‘crystal-clear sense of right and wrong’

For someone other than Kevin M. Dillon, the former Erie County district attorney and State Supreme Court justice who died Thursday at 65, living up to one of the best-known surnames in local legal circles might have proven an insurmountable obstacle.

But as tributes pour in from political and legal luminaries across New York State, Dillon appears to have passed muster. Friends and colleagues recall a stellar legal and political career that first gained renown as a defense attorney for the “.22-Caliber Killer” and later as an award-winning prosecutor and jurist.

Dillon had been in declining health in recent years, but his death after complications from Parkinson’s disease was unexpected. His health problems forced him to retire from the bench in 2013 at 63, far earlier than he had planned.

“I can’t perform on the same level that has always been acceptable to me,” he told The Buffalo News at the time. “It doesn’t go away and it doesn’t get any better. That says it all.”

Those who knew Dillon personally and professionally over the years are remembering him as intense yet affable; as a storyteller, golfer, historian, fan of college basketball and the Buffalo Bisons; and as someone with the ability to cultivate countless friends. Most of all they, recall him as dedicated to a legal profession in which he ascended to the highest ranks.

One of Dillon’s closest friends, former Republican Rep. Jack F. Quinn Jr., formed a duo with the Democrat often spotted at family functions, holiday gatherings and sporting events. Now president of Erie Community College, Quinn on Thursday recalled Dillon as a “very fair, honest, and hardworking public servant.”

“As a very close friend since our college days, I saw firsthand how Kevin developed a crystal-clear sense of right and wrong, and he set that standard for his clients, students, litigants and – most of all – for himself,” Quinn said. “Everyone who ever dealt with Kevin felt important and needed, regardless of who it was – from office custodians to expert witnesses to governor, and everyone in between.”

Other tributes came from acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr., who recalled the man who once occupied his office as one “who served with tremendous distinction.” County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner said Dillon “set the gold standard for district attorneys.”

“He was simply what everybody wanted in that office – no matter what walk of life you were from, you found justice, kindness and friendship in Kevin Dillon,” he said.

Zellner’s predecessor as chairman, current County Democratic Elections Commissioner Leonard R. Lenihan, called Dillon “the truest of public servants, in that he didn’t allow politics to cloud his professional judgment, affect his friendships or his sense of fair play. This community has never had a finer representative in any office.”

The defense bar represented by attorney Richard T. Sullivan said that whether someone was a prosecutor, defender, defendant or plaintiff, “you wanted to appear before him.”

“That’s because he was eminently fair,” Sullivan said. “Everyone got the same treatment through his unbelievable sense of right and wrong.”

A Lackawanna native, Dillon hailed from one of the area’s most prominent political families in which his late father, Michael F. Dillon, served as patriarch. The elder Dillon also was a former district attorney, as well as a presiding justice of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court. Through the years, Dillon seemed to often pepper many of his observations on the law and current events with relatable stories about his father.

His father swore him in as district attorney in 1988, and the younger Dillon made sure a longtime friend and associate – Thomas P. Franczyk – received his father’s judicial robe when he took the bench in 1996.

After directing prosecution of about 350,000 criminal cases as district attorney, Dillon reflected on his years in “the toughest job I ever had.” His father warned him, he said, that he was crazy to take the job and its accompanying headaches.

“The DA gets all kinds of information from all over the county, whether he or she wants it or not,” he said. “It’s an incessant stream.

“Being DA is not something you enjoy, but it’s an honor to serve in that position,” he added.

A graduate of Canisius High School, Villanova University and the University at Buffalo Law School, Dillon burst onto the local legal scene when he and colleague Mark J. Mahoney defended Joseph G. Christopher – the “.22-Caliber Killer,” who was eventually convicted of murdering several black men in Buffalo in 1980.

“When it was all over – one – we were exhausted, and – two – we were broke,” Dillon once told The News. “But we were both single, so we endured.”

Then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, father of the current governor, appointed Dillon as district attorney in 1988, as he succeeded Republican Richard J. Arcara, who ascended to the U.S. District Court bench. After being appointed, Dillon won two four-year terms on his own.

His 1988 victory set a record at the time for the highest majority in a contest for district attorney – almost 99,000 votes – surpassing the mark set for the same office in 1963 by his father.

Dillon was elected to State Supreme Court in 1998 and again in 2012.

For 18 years, he was an instructor at UB Law School and also served as chairman of the board of trustees at D’Youville College. He received a host of legal and professional citations, including the Frank Hogan Award (named after the long-serving Manhattan district attorney) from the New York District Attorneys Association. It had been presented to his father in 1982.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Thursday.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com