The High Cost Of Defense

THE MENENDEZ SAGA KEEPS GETTING stranger. Last week brothers Erik and Lyle were back in a Los Angeles courtroom. This time they were claiming not abuse but poverty-their multimillion-dollar inheritance presumably all gone. Erik and Lyle now want taxpayers to pay the defense bill for their retrial later this year on capital murder. The brothers are charged with the 1989 slaying of their parents, Kitty and Jose. Older brother Lyle got his wish. The court appointed two public defenders to replace Jill Lansing, his lawyer from the first trial whom the judge allowed to withdraw for family reasons.

But Erik's request to dip into the public till hit a roadblock. He wants to keep his private lawyer, Leslie Abramson, whose daring strategy, pugnacious demeaner and occasional courtroom back rubs for Erik made her the star of the first trial. Abramson told Superior Court. Judge Cecil B. Mills that she could stay on only if the court agreed to pay her $100 an hour (well below her expected rate of $250), up to $250,000. Dressed in prison blues, Erik "begged" the judge to compensate her. "She knows the deepest secrets of my life," Erik told Mills. "I don't feel that I could open my life up to another attorney."

Abramson's contract with the 23-year-old Erik called for her to work through both the guilt and penalty phases of his trial, which the judge interpreted to include a retrial. She's already been paid major dollars by Erik so far, though no one quite agrees on the numbers. Court records say she's received $740,000. Yet in court last week she said she's gotten $650,000 since 1990-an average, she said, of $68 an hour for an estimated 8,600 hours of work. But that arithmetic would work out to be only $584,800. Whatever the numbers, Abramson argued that with the $14 million Menendez estate now gone, the court couldn't expect her to continue to work for free. The judge wasn't buying. "The court is not going to step in and say if you made a bad business decision that the public is now going to bail you out," Mills said. So for now Abramson is forced to remain on the high-profile case-with empty pockets.

Where did the $14 million estate go ($15 million, by some accounts)? That's another accounting mystery, according to a morass of probate-court records. Roughly $1.5 million went to all the lawyers working on the brothers' defense. An additional 83 million was lost on the sale of the family home. Jose's estate paid taxes in 1991 of $1.33 million. The boys' prearrest spending is well known: $300,000 for Lyle's purchase of a restaurant in Princeton, N.J.; Erik's Jeep and Lyle's Porsche; hundreds of thousands more for MGM Grand Air flights, limos, hotels, condos, Rolex watches and tennis instruction. Although the estate sold off millions in securities, its chief remaining asset is a second home worth about $2 million; but debt may have reduced the estate value to zero.

Abramson told Mills that she would file a motion to withdraw from the case, her client's wishes notwithstanding. If the motion is granted, Erik will wind up getting publicly funded counsel; under county guidelines, the legal fee would be between $60,000 and $125,000. But Abramson faces the toughest of choices for a celebrity lawyer: handle the case for free or give up priceless publicity and prime-time segments with Diane and Morley. And you thought only Erik and Lyle had problems.

Perhaps Court TV could host a telethon.

_B_Worth Every Penny_b_ As Erik Menendez found, a defender like Leslie Abramson is nearly priceless. At first trial, fee to Abramson: $650,000 The fee cap Abramson $250,000 wants for round 2: ($100/hr) L.A. County's likely payment for a capital case $125,000 What top L.A. lawyers charge clients (est.) $200-400/hr (est.)