Counsel In The Hot Seat

IT WAS NOT THE HISTRIONICS, BUT THE silence in last week's Los Angeles courtroom that rang the loudest. Defense attorney Leslie Abramson, known as a ferocious fist-pounder, sat mute and withered next to her equally famous, equally wan client, Erik Menendez. Each faced separate fates: Erik, convicted in a retrial last month along with his brother, Lyle, of the 1989 savage murder of their parents, awaited his sentencelife in prison or death by injection. Abramson, who had defended Erik with flair and sharp strategy, is facing the greatest setback of her brilliant 27-year career. In her zeal to win an acquittal in the 1993 Menendez trial that ended in deadlock, the firebrand lawyer may have tampered with the evidence. The case that made her a media star was quickly turning her into a pariah. Even her teammates on the defense were scrambling to shove her off the case.

Abramson's alleged ethical breach was exposed almost by accident. It came two weeks ago during the penalty phase of the trial, when the jury determines the punishment. While cross-examining Dr. William Vicary, Erik's psychiatrist, prosecutor David Conn realized for the first time that his notes of Erik's jailtime psychiatric sessions were different from Vicary's. When asked about the discrepancies, Vicary told the court that he had deleted passages under pressure by the defense. The judge halted testimony and launched his own investigation. He discovered the notes were altered two dozen times, including one passage in which Erik said that he hated his parents and wanted them out of his life, just one week before the slayings. Questioned about the missing evidence by Judge Stanley Weisberg, Abramson twice invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Stunned legal experts said the spectacle was unprecedented in a murder trial.

Now benched and silent, Abramson faces a shaky future. The medieval-history major from Queens, now 52, is known for having saved 13 out of 14 murder convicts from death row. This trial was meant to be her last. Abramson, who grabbed a lot of air time analyzing the O. J. Simpson trial for ABC News, had planned to launch a new career in television after the sentencing. Twentieth Television signed her to deliver commentary on Fox news, among other possibilities. But now industry watchers say privately that her budding broadcast career may be over.

That could be the least of her problems. The Bar Association of California was expected to open an inquiry after the trial that could result in disbarment if it's found that she purposely presented false documents in court. She could also face a criminal investigation. "It is a serious violation," said Prof. Laurie Levensen of Loyola Law School. "If you don't follow the rules, it doesn't matter how good you are." For now, Abramson remains by Erik's side. In a strange way, her possible downfall may save her client's life. If the jury decides for death, Abramson's mistake could provide a basis for appeal of the penalty. The defense could conceivably argue that the jury punished the brothers not for their own sins against their parents but for the sins of their advocate.

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