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John Kivlan, ‘the ultimate prosecutor,’ dies at 77

He convicted John Salvi of killing women at Brookline abortion clinics

Mr. KivlanPat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

John Kivlan, a celebrated attorney and former prosecutor who garnered national attention for his conviction of a gunman who killed two women during a 1994 shooting rampage at Brookline abortion clinics, died Wednesday, according to authorities.

He was 77 years old.

Mr. Kivlan, of East Sandwich, died at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth from injuries suffered in a car crash in Norwell on the morning of Jan. 6, according to a spokesperson for the family. He had been driving on Route 3A when his car went off the road and struck a stand of trees.

Mr. Kivlan was frequently in the public eye for his prosecution of high-profile cases with the Norfolk district attorney’s office from the 1970s to the 1990s. He later served on the state parole board and, at the end of his career, worked on programs that helped prepare inmates for life after jail.


Among friends and colleagues Mr. Kivlan was revered for his meticulous nature and legal prowess.

“He was a tough prosecutor, but he was fair,” said former congressman and Norfolk district attorney Bill Delahunt, recounting how Mr. Kivlan was the first person he hired when he took office in 1975, making him one of the first full-time assistant district attorneys in the state. “He really in many ways exemplified the search for the truth. ... He wouldn’t take anything at face value.”

Mr. Kivlan, who later became Delahunt’s first assistant, “set the tone for the office” and became nationally respected, Delahunt said. “He really was a force.”

Mr. Kivlan most famously prosecuted John Salvi III, who killed two women and wounded five others at two Brookline health centers in 1994, and Tufts professor William Douglas, whose murder case later became the subject of the book “Missing Beauty.” Mr. Kivlan was able to get a murder indictment against Douglas for the slaying of 21-year-old Robin Benedict, who had been working as a prostitute, without a body or a confession. Shortly after the trial began in 1984, Douglas pleaded guilty to manslaughter and confessed to dumping the body out of state.


“He was the ultimate prosecutor, the ultimate lawyer, from day one until the last one,” said Gerald Pudolsky, who worked with Mr. Kivlan under Delahunt in the 1970s, and stayed close with the former assistant district attorney for decades.

“He was a tough guy — no one better, no one fairer,” Pudolsky added. “Even the [defense] attorneys who worked against him respected him.”

Peter Casey, who also met Mr. Kivlan working in the Norfolk office, said he quickly gained a reputation for going above and beyond to ensure a thorough investigation. For example, Casey recalled a time when, in preparation for the cross-examination of an expert witness, Mr. Kivlan read an entire book authored by the psychiatrist, in order to prove to a jury that the witness was relying on faulty science.

“It was not unusual to have a conversation with him that would last an hour or two, just getting the issues clear. He worked very hard to be certain he was doing the best he could,” Casey said.

Thomas Brennan, a retired judge and former prosecutor, said he was recruited by Mr. Kivlan to join the Norfolk district attorney’s office in 1986 after the pair met working together in the Middlesex district attorney’s office. Shortly after switching offices, the two tackled and worked together on a special investigation into a Brockton police chief who was suspected of stealing cocaine and drug money from the evidence room and was ultimately convicted.


But Mr. Kivlan had a humorous side, too.

“He was a tough prosecutor, but he had a great sense of humor. He was funny and a good storyteller — quick-witted and to the point,” said Brennan. He remembered the small cluster of assistant district attorneys who routinely gathered for lunch.

“That’s when he revealed the other side that many people didn’t know about,” Brennan said. “There were a lot of do-you-remembers, and good-humored kidding around.”

Casey, who considered Mr. Kivlan a dear friend as well as a colleague, said the two never went more than a month without speaking.

“I’ve known him since 1976 and we’ve talked more or less every week since that time,” Casey said. In retirement, roughly the same group that once gathered in the Norfolk office made a habit of having seasonal lunches, catching up on everything from work to family.

Mr. Kivlan was a loyal friend to all who knew him, able to balance a joke in one sentence with sage words of advice in the next. When Brennan was sworn in as first justice for Newton District Court in 2000, it was an easy choice to pick the person who would speak on his behalf at the ceremony.

“The only person I wanted to do it was John,” Brennan said.


Mr. Kivlan was raised in Brookline and joined the Marines after graduating from St. Mary of Assumption High School. He graduated from Boston College and Boston College Law School. He married his wife, Susan, in 1966 and the couple had two daughters. They lived in Milton for many years before settling on Cape Cod.

Mr. Kivlan was an avid runner, and loved horse-back riding and sailing.

In 1985, he won a $2.7 million state lottery jackpot — the first time he ever played.

“It was one of those big ones, and everyone in the office was playing,” he told the Globe during an interview. “Someone had to show me how to fill it out. I put my daughters’ and my wife’s birthdays on it and won. I couldn’t believe it.”

Delahunt said Mr. Kivlan “didn’t change a bit,” never considered giving up his job, and continued to be a “brown bagger,” bringing his lunch to work.

Mr. Kivlan was named Delahunt’s first assistant in the mid-1980s, a role he held for more than a decade, but was fired when William Keating took the helm in 1998. He joined the state parole board shortly thereafter.

Then in 2004, Kivlan answered the call from then Norfolk County Sheriff Michael Bellotti to help lead one of the state’s earliest reentry programs for those incarcerated at the county House of Correction, serving as the central point of contact among parole, probation, police, and local officials for a series of initiatives geared at providing social services to those preparing to return home from jail.


“He was the consummate professional, who elevated my office internally and externally because of his temperament, integrity and legal expertise,” Bellotti said. When I had the opportunity to hire him, I felt blessed. It was like grabbing Tom Brady after the Patriots. You got some good years out of him.”

A funeral Mass will be said for Mr. Kivlan at 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Brookline, followed by burial at New Calvary Cemetery.

In addition to his wife, Susan, he leaves his daughters, Laura and Anna, and his grandson.

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her @shelleymurph. Ivy Scott can be reached at ivy.scott@globe.com. Follow her @itsivyscott.