The Defender : Some Say Leslie Abramson Is the Best Female Criminal Defense Lawyer Around. Others Say She’s the Best, Period.
REMEMBERING HER DAYS AS A young girl--"No one would have accused me of being a happy child"--Leslie Abramson has an enduring memory of her favorite means of escape. After school, at the corner luncheonette, she’d buy button candies and chocolate marshmallow twists (two for a nickel) and spend hours at the comic-book racks, reading. Mad magazine was good for a giggle. But it was the spooky stuff, the horror comics like “Tales From the Crypt,” that she really loved. And hated, too.
“They ruined my life, those comic books,” she says now, half-jokingly, driving her black Jaguar from the downtown criminal courts building to Los Angeles County Jail. “They scared the hell out of me. People were always being buried alive. That haunted me for years, late at night. We’re talking heavy-duty grim.”
The girl who was both repulsed and mesmerized by grisly tales is now the woman who devotes her life to defending those accused of committing real-life horrors. Leslie Abramson--criminal defense lawyer, capital-punishment abolitionist and a leader in keeping California killers off Death Row--lights up another cigarette in the jail foyer. A tiny woman of 45, she is dressed conservatively in a fitted navy-blue suit and Charles Jourdan pumps. She looks like Little Orphan Annie and talks like Ralph Kramden on speed. Standing now before the sheriff’s deputy who will buzz her into the attorney’s room, she appears ready to fight--legs apart, hands on hips. It is the same posture she uses so effectively in court, braced for battle with a street-wise intensity.
Abramson has come here tonight to meet with two clients awaiting murder trials. One is Brian Hale, a 36-year-old college graduate from Downey who spent eight years on Death Row before the state Supreme Court reversed his murder conviction. Though the trial court declared a doubt as to his sanity, the judge neglected to hold a hearing to determine his mental competency to stand trial. Hale, who had a history of psychiatric hospitalization, killed two elderly men on the street one night because he thought they were demons. Now, Abramson will defend him in a retrial.
“This is the most appalling misuse of capital punishment,” she says of Hale’s case. “This is a classic mentally ill person who we’re not supposed to do these things to.”
Abramson’s other client is Dr. Khalid Parwez, a Pakistani-born gynecologist accused of strangling his 11-year-old son and hacking his body into more than 200 pieces. Abramson says Parwez has not finished grieving for his son and is deeply depressed as he awaits trial, living in “the abyss, just like ‘Midnight Express.’ ”
Reviled by the public, these imprisoned men are her “guys"--"adorable,” “sweet,” “tragic” and “pathetic” are her most common adjectives for them--and she protects them like a doting mother. She would probably kiss them hello, but a sign on the wall says No handshaking or other physical contact! “Leslie,” the accused doctor says, “takes care like a doctor to me.”
Even more than her concern for her clients, many of whom are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, her unwavering opposition to the death penalty drives Abramson. She believes that it is as morally reprehensible for the state to take a life as it is for one person to kill another. Part of an elite band of trial lawyers dedicated to defending those accused of capital crimes, no matter how heinous, Abramson has saved a dozen people from Death Row. She also has garnered nearly every accolade that the criminal defense bar has to offer. She is president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a statewide organization of 2,000 defense lawyers, and the first woman to head that group. In 1985, she was honored as Outstanding Trial Attorney by the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Bar Assn., also the first woman to be so honored. And more recently, she was listed in “The Best Lawyers in America,” a guide to the country’s top lawyers as selected by their peers.
Clearly, all the attention amuses, even delights, her, especially at this stage in her life, when most defense lawyers are burnt-out--or have sold out. Abramson has lurched toward both extremes and stayed on track. The burnout phase struck when all her clients began to “look alike” at the end of her career as a public defender; the sellout component is always a temptation, given Abramson’s admission that she’s a “terrible materialist"--evidenced by the Jaguar, the jewels and her hankering for fine period furniture.
In her 20-year career--seven with the Los Angeles County public defender’s office and 13 in private practice--she has handled thousands of cases, 40 of them jury trials, and won more than she’s lost. Along the way, she has gained a reputation for taking cases that other lawyers consider unwinnable.
To Abramson, a murder conviction can be a victory, so long as her client is not condemned to death. Using this standard, she has lost only one of the 13 capital cases she has tried. That was the trial of Ricky Sanders, who was sentenced to die in the gas chamber for herding 11 people into a freezer and shooting to death four of them at the Bob’s Big Boy on La Cienega Boulevard on Dec. 14, 1980. Now, Sanders sends her his paintings from Death Row, where he waits out the appeals process.
Frequently, she handles cases that capture headlines, such as the Bob’s Big Boy case and that of a defendant in the 1984 Chinatown jewelry-store robbery in which a Los Angeles policeman was killed. Her first big splash came in 1981, with what the media dubbed the “Perry Mason” trial, in which she turned up ballistics evidence pointing to the prosecution’s star witness as the prime suspect; murder charges against her client were subsequently dismissed.
Abramson’s courtroom savvy has even won her a spot in American fiction. In his 1987 novel, “The Red, White and Blue,” John Gregory Dunne fashioned Leah Kaye, the left-leaning criminal defense attorney, after Abramson. “We’ve never talked about the book,” says Dunne, who is a friend of Abramson and who adds that Leah Kaye is also part writer Nora Ephron and part Joan Didion, his wife. “All Leslie said to me was, ‘I don’t have an emerald-cut diamond,’ ” a reference to Leah Kaye’s square-cut stone. Abramson wears her mother’s three-karat, round-cut diamond above her wedding band and, on her right hand, an amethyst-and-pearl ring the size of a peach pit. She calls it her “Chinatown victory” ring. She bought it as a present for herself minutes after the jury in the Chinatown murder case last year spared her client, Hua Cheong (Peter) Chan, from the gas chamber and convicted him of second-degree murder.
“I’ve got the most incredible, drop-dead earrings to go with it,” she adds proudly. “I need one more piece. I need the brooch. Then I’ve got the whole schmear.”
Many of her peers describe her as the premier criminal lawyer in Los Angeles. Not the best female attorney. But the best. Period. And she’s competitive enough to demand such distinctions. Says Casey Cohen, a private investigator who specializes in death-penalty cases: “One time, I slipped up and said to her, ‘Leslie, you’re probably the greatest female lawyer in the state.’ She suggested things she would do to my anatomy if I didn’t rephrase that.”
ABRAMSON IS A compendium of contradiction. Outrage could be her middle name; in fact, it is Hope. Her face can quickly turn cold and skeptical, but when she laughs--actually, it’s more of a smirk combined with a hack--she conveys the roguish bent of a latter-day hippie with plugged-in hair. Among the ironies of her career is that while friends lovingly describe her as forceful, dominating and rude, Abramson’s legal specialty depends to a large extent on an appreciation of the subtler shadings of human psychology, on caring for people others see as scum.
Abramson’s trademark audacity, a calculated blend of self-righteousness and aggressiveness, is fueled mostly by a seething animosity toward the system. At times, she borders on paranoia. Then again, she has reason: “They” are trying to kill her clients. As a result, says appellate lawyer Charles Sevilla, “She has an elan vital that is unmatched, an energy force around her that is formidable.”
“Most defense lawyers are slime,” says Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Barshop, who hired her to represent him in his divorce even though they had been adversaries in court. “But she’s incredibly prepared. That’s what she does best. She knows her facts.” LAPD detective Bill Gailey, the investigating officer in the Chinatown case, agrees. “If we have a case and Leslie is assigned to it, you had better get your act together and be prepared, because she’s gonna wring your ass. Now I call that respect.”
Compulsive organization and the ability to recall the tiniest detail among thousands of pages of trial transcripts are key ingredients to her success. But ultimately, these courtroom skills have assumed less mythic dimensions than her outspoken criticism of prosecutors, both in court and out. Their code, she’ll tell you, is “standard operating slime cedure,” especially when they rely on the testimony of jailhouse informants.
Abramson’s most explosive questioning of prosecutorial conduct came last fall when she broke the jailhouse informant scandal. Soon after Leslie White, a prisoner in L.A. County Jail, demonstrated to law-enforcement authorities that he could fake the murder confession of a suspect without ever meeting him, he called Abramson. “He was concerned for his safety,” Abramson recalls. “And I told him the only way to be protected was for the press to be told. So I told him that unless I heard from him to the contrary, I was going to notify the press.”
Though skeptical of White’s story, Abramson nonetheless called Times reporter Ted Rohrlich, who discovered that the sheriff’s office was not denying White’s story. The scandal quickly mushroomed. From allegations that a few informants were fabricating confessions, the district attorney’s office was forced to beexamine 200 murder convictions based on the testimony of informants.
The D.A.'s alleged use of unreliable informants will be the subject of a grand jury investigation in coming months. At the same time, Abramson and other members of the defense bar are pushing for legislation mandating that juries be instructed to view all informant testimony with caution. Abramson believes that the jailhouse-informant issue could be an integral part of Ricky Sanders’ appeal, because a prisoner who once rode on a custody bus with Sanders testified against him.
In Abramson’s view, the informant controversy comes at a crucial moment for bolstering fair-trial guarantees. In the past decade, criminal justice reform in California has taken the form of either increasing sentences--the “lock ‘em up, sock ‘em up” approach, as Abramson calls it--or chipping away at protections for a fair trial, such as a pending bill to eliminate voir dire , the questioning of potential jurors by lawyers.
“The fact that people are just sitting there waiting to make up stories about your clients and their cases is an absolute given of criminal defense,” Abramson says. “I’ve known it since the day I started practicing 20 years ago. The first thing I ever tell a client is: ‘Don’t talk to anybody in the jail. There are informants. And if you think someone is one, hit ‘em. Not hard, but in front of witnesses, so he can’t later claim he was your best friend.’ ”
She smiles. “No one has ever done that, by the way. Even though they should have.”
Abramson is no less vociferous in her attack on how defense lawyers are reimbursed by the courts. As chair of the Indigent Criminal Defense Appointment Panel, a committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., she oversees the appointment of private lawyers to criminal cases downtown. In the past, judges could set fees on a case-by-case basis. In recent years, however, Abramson’s committee has established a panel system for appointing attorneys with a fixed-fee schedule, rules of availability and standards of education and experience not based on favoritism.
In non-criminal cases, she says, the county reimburses lawyers the prevailing rate in private practice, which is as high as $350 an hour. In capital cases, lawyers earn from $60 to $100 an hour for court time. “It is just ludicrous,” she says, that the value of human litigation is so much less than the value of financial litigation.
WHAT Leslie Abramson does best she does in court, attending to every last detail.
“ Oy vaysmere !” she sighs in exasperation as the elevator doors creak open on the 13th floor of the downtown criminal courts building. She is lighting up another Kent and clacking down the hallway during an afternoon recess. Inside the snack shop, she buys cookies for her client, Roberto Lopez, on trial for double murder. “He likes the Pogens, the chocolate-brownie ones,” she says, shoving a dollar bill at the cashier.
She torpedoes back into the courtroom. “I’m going over the stress edge,” she complains to no one in particular. But before the jurors take their seats in the courtroom, she throttles her nervous energy and leans back in her chair. Even in heels, her feet don’t reach the floor. She swings them, like a child, under the table and inhales deeply.
“OK, ready to rock ‘n’ roll!” she announces, putting on her Atticus Finch glasses before Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg takes his seat on the bench. Propped up on the defense table before her are five black loose-leaf notebooks filled with meticulously labeled summaries of trial testimony. By contrast, Deputy Dist. Atty. Alex Kessel wheels in his cart loaded with enlarged photographs, legal pads and exhibits that seem to be constantly falling off.
To her right at the defense table is her co-counsel and “best friend,” Gerald Chaleff. “We’re 50-50, but she’s in charge,” Chaleff explains. “Leslie can take control of a courtroom without anyone feeling threatened.” Abramson doesn’t hesitate to thwack Chaleff with the back of her hand when she feels he’s made a mistake by objecting to one of Kessel’s questions. Ever since the Bob’s Big Boy trial, which she regretted handling alone, she’s worked with co-counsel on murder cases. Since April, Abramson, Chaleff and Kessel have been trying the Lopez case, a “special circumstance” murder, which basically means that, because two people were killed, Lopez could face the death penalty if convicted. The accused killer, seated beside Abramson at the counsel table, is a short, bespectacled man with a sort of early-Beatles haircut. He seems hyperactive, constantly whispering in Abramson’s ear, scribbling notes for her in Spanish and scrunching up his nose when he doesn’t like what he hears. She shushes him frequently.
The facts of the case are these: On Oct. 7, 1983, at about 4 a.m., two Cuban drug dealers were machine-gunned to death in a car parked near Western Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. According to the prosecution’s theory, Lopez killed the victims because they owed him money for drugs. Kessel’s case is based on two pieces of evidence. One is that Lopez’s palm print was on the door of the car in which the victims were found. The other is that the prosecution’s key witness, Carlos Boroto, testified that he saw Lopez fire a round of bullets into an auto-body shop before the murders. Ballistics evidence indicates that the slugs from the auto-body shop match the slugs recovered from the victims’ bodies.
Today is Abramson’s third day of cross-examining Boroto. And she’s having a field day, undermining his credibility, step by step. Yes, he tells her, he lies easily. Yes, he’s serving time in prison for violating parole. He’s been a cocaine dealer. A heroin user. A car thief. A prison inmate eager to oblige law-enforcement officials.
Not only does she challenge his credibility as a witness, she goes one step further: She insinuates that he and the district attorney have struck a deal, evidenced by his treatment in the courtroom:
Abramson: Isn’t it a little unusual for a state prison inmate to be running around in civilian clothes down the hallway in the county courthouse, having his lunch bought by the district attorney, not wearing handcuffs?
Kessel: That assumes a fact not in evidence and its compound, your honor.
The Court: Sustained. It’s also argumentative.
Abramson: Have they been bringing you food at lunch while you sit in the office?
Abramson: Have you been moving around during the daytime in this courtroom . . . not wearing handcuffs?
Boroto: No. Just when I go outside to have a cigarette or to the bathroom.
Abramson: And you sit in this courtroom without any handcuffs while we’re waiting for things to happen?
Abramson: And you walk down the hallway in the morning and at night, and you’re not in handcuffs?
Boroto: Yes, because I asked them for that, if he could do that.
Abramson: And he did that favor for you, didn’t he?
Boroto: Yes, because I don’t like everybody to be watching me with the handcuffs on.
Abramson: And he acceded to your wishes on that?
Boroto: He did that favor for me. That’s the one favor that he has done in his life for me.
Bingo. Some jurors are rolling their eyes. Score one for the defense.
Out of such scores and more, Abramson fashions victories. In the seven-month Chinatown case, in which the prosecution sought a first-degree murder conviction for her client, the jury returned a verdict of second-degree murder instead. They bought Abramson’s skillful defense that Peter Chan was in the getaway car, not inside the jewelry store, as the prosecution contended. Abramson used name charts to help jurors distinguish Chan from accomplices Chinh, Cheong and Woo. She put on conflicting testimony that left murky Chan’s role in the robbery attempt. And she didn’t hesitate to engage the jurors’ sympathies when she scrawled two words on the blackboard as a supposed reminder to herself at the outset of her closing argument: Stay calm. “I sort of feel like a coiled spring,” she told the jurors. “And I don’t want to just poing all over the courtroom.”
Connecting with juries is Abramson’s forte. Part of her strategy in gaining jurors’ confidence is to convince them that her client may be culpable for something, but not for everything the prosecution claims. “I liked Leslie’s candor in the closing argument,” recalls Frank Waller, a juror in the Chan trial. “She said she wasn’t going to pretend he was innocent and guiltless. She didn’t say what he was guilty of, exactly. But after nine months, she was willing to admit to us he wasn’t completely innocent.”
Last year, Abramson turned in what was indisputably her best defense, in People vs. Arnel Salvatierra. The case captured international attention when, a day before his death, Philippine News executive Oscar Salvatierra received a death threat believed to be tied to his newspaper’s opposition to former Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos. But in court, Salvatierra’s 17-year-old son, Arnel, admitted sending his father the faked letter and described how he crept into his father’s bedroom and shot him three times in the head as he slept. He testified that he feared for his life because he was failing most of his classes at Glendale High School.
“Leslie’s summation in the Salvatierra case was a stroke of genius,” says Superior Court Judge Gilbert C. Alston, who presided over the trial. “She can take a case that’s unpopular and unsavory and deal with it and still be Leslie. People will think I’m being a male chauvinist pig for saying this, but lots of women can’t do that. If a snake comes in a courtroom, most women would leap up on a chair and scream. Leslie will grab it by the back of the head, like you’re supposed to, and show it off to everyone.”
What Abramson did in that case was convince the jury that Arnel Salvatierra was the victim of a lifetime of physical and psychological abuse by his father. She compared her client’s situation to the infamous Lisa Steinberg case in New York, in which Joel Steinberg was convicted of murdering the 6-year-old adopted daughter he had relentlessly abused. “What happens if the Lisa Steinbergs don’t die?” she asked the jury. “What happens if they get older and if the cumulative effect of all these years of abuse finally drives them over the edge and Lisa Steinberg pulls a gun and kills Joel Steinberg?”
Salvatierra, originally charged with first-degree murder, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter by the jury and placed on probation. Abramson has successfully used the same defense in a handful of other cases in which abused wives killed their husbands. In fact, it has become a sub-specialty of hers and an area, she believes, where the law has yet to catch up with psychology. “It’s wrong to punish these victims for surviving,” she says.
“If you convict Arnel Salvatierra of first-degree murder,” Abramson warned the jury, “it will be as if Oscar Salvatierra’s hand will come out of the grave and his last act of terrorism will happen with you as his accomplices.” It was a menacing closing argument,
BORN IN New York in 1943, Abramson grew up in an unpredictable household, the middle of three children. When she was 6, her father left, to return only for sporadic weekend visits. She has not spoken to him in 32 years.
Growing up poor in an apartment in Queens, she entertained fantasies of becoming a ballerina, an FBI agent, a fighter pilot in the Israeli army, an actress, a doctor. The most important person in Abramson’s early life was her grandmother, Fanny Kaprow, a Russian immigrant, organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, one-time Communist Party member, Zionist and champion of the working class.
“She was my hero,” Abramson says. “She believed in women making their own way. Very willful and stubborn. And she was beautiful, too.”
Her grandmother began stumping for the ILGWU after her friends jumped to their deaths in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire, in which workers had been locked inside by management so they couldn’t attend a union meeting. On the rebound from another relationship, she married the owner of the factory where she worked. “She cut off her nose to spite her face,” says Abramson. “It became a family trait--spite.”
At Queens College, Abramson majored in medieval history and was captain of the cheerleading team. “I was not a soc (as in social butterfly),” she insists. “This was not song girl-pompon kind of thing, ya know, like froufrou. We worked hard, did scissor splits and cartwheels. I can’t tell you the obsessional devotion I had to cheerleading.”
She married a local boy, a pharmacist, and moved to California soon after completing college. A year after the September, 1965, birth of her daughter, Laine, Abramson enrolled at UCLA Law School. By her last year of law school, her marriage was ending.
She never had any doubt that she’d become a public defender, and in those days, she tromped around L.A. Municipal Court in an Afro, fatigue jacket, granny dress (or micro-mini) and wedgies. But after seven years of handling 65 cases at a time, she felt that her clients were blurring together. Besides, working for the county “is like working for your mother. I wanted to prove to myself that I could support myself.”
In private practice, Abramson thought that she’d handle divorce cases. But she found that dealing with money and pettiness was harder than handling life and death. At about the same time, in 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that death penalty laws were not “cruel and unusual” so long as they were not imposed arbitrarily. That decision forced states to set up systems that separated the guilt phase of a trial from the penalty phase and also set strict guidelines for considering aggravating and mitigating circumstances. After Californians voted to reinstate the death penalty in 1977, Abramson began gravitating toward capital cases.
That same year, Abramson was invited to Gerry Chaleff’s home for a dinner party. Having just had his wisdom teeth pulled, Chaleff stayed in bed all evening. But one of his guests was Tim Rutten, now an editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times, who was then editing the paper’s Opinion section. He and Abramson stayed up all night talking. Two months later, they were married in court during the noon recess by a judge who was overseeing one of Abramson’s murder trials.
“We just knew we were suited for each other,” says Abramson, who is not exactly romantic about such things. “We knew it intellectually.” Their only serious source of disagreement, both say, is over gag orders--she believes that they are necessary; he thinks they’re an abridgement of the First Amendment.
IT ISN’T surprising that Leslie--even people who don’t know her well call her Leslie--has her enemies. There are those, most of them prosecutors, who wish her ill. They hope her clients die. They hope she takes a dive. They want to see her fail. In fact, probably no other criminal defense lawyer in Los Angeles is the target of such resentment and bile from members of the district attorney’s office. But Abramson didn’t become a criminal lawyer to win popularity contests. “There’s never been a time in history when being a criminal lawyer was the popular way to go,” she shrugs. Some deputy district attorneys say she can be unnecessarily nasty. “She always acts like she is the holy one and you are corrupt,” says one. Tales circulate about her rages, about the time she so intimidated a cop that he didn’t testify at a preliminary hearing, about the time she stormed out of a courtroom, about the time she woke up a snoozing juror by using a high-decibel expletive to describe the prosecutor. Among the many nicknames for her are the Blond Firebrand, the Classy Yenta, the Great Leslie--and at least one that can’t be printed here.
Much of the animosity directed toward Abramson occurs because she is a woman. “Some guys just can’t handle it from women,” says Chaleff. “And they especially can’t take it from Leslie.”
Abramson’s audacious reputation derives, in part, from a couple of incidents that occurred rather early in her career but that, over the years, have assumed a larger-than-life quality.
In one episode, she was representing an older man who was convicted of selling heroin to an undercover police officer. The client was a diabetic, and when he didn’t receive his diabetes medication in jail, he died. Outraged, Abramson shot off a letter on March 10, 1980, to Deputy Dist. Atty. Mark Vezzani.
Dear Mr. Vezzani:
Your fellow fascists in the District Attorney’s Association must be very proud of you. You are the only D.A. who has obtained a death penalty for the sale of narcotics.
Prodded by a judge who was miffed by the letter, she sent a second letter to Vezzani, apologizing. But it was too late. The letter had been posted on the bulletin board in the district attorney’s office--and became a source of derision and anger among prosecutors. “It was a stupid thing to do,” she says now. “And I did regret doing it. But what I regretted more was that my client had died in jail due to neglect.”
Vezzani, meanwhile, framed the letter and recently unpacked it for display in his new Bellflower office. It is propped up on a bookshelf beside a letter from his favorite author, Robert Ludlum, and near a stuffed rattlesnake under glass. He says he and Abramson made amends long ago.
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Harvey Giss, the prosecutor who battled Abramson during the Bob’s Big Boy trial, says that her tactics in that case were “disgusting.” Like other members of the D.A.'s office, Giss is quick to suggest that Abramson’s “connections” at The Times--namely, her husband’s employment there--have enabled her to take the “low road” in court.
Specifically, Giss recalls that on the very day that Abramson was scheduled to call an expert on eyewitness testimony named Elizabeth Loftus to the stand, a feature story about eyewitness testimony appeared on Page One of The Times. In it, Loftus was quoted extensively about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. But the judge had decided that Loftus did not qualify as an expert witness and could not testify. In effect, says Giss, because the jurors were not sequestered, they could read The Times’ article and get the information that the judge had barred Abramson from presenting in court.
“She already told us the witness was an expert, had to be in another city at another time and asked if she (Loftus) could testify on that particular date,” Giss says. “And we both stipulated she could. Then, the article appears that morning. So, she (Abramson) knew what day to have the article published if she was interested in doing that. Let me put it like this: It was one of the great coincidences of all time.”
Abramson contends it truly was a coincidence. Rutten agrees: “It’s like Freud said. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Asked if he suggested to any editors when to schedule that story, he replied: “I’ve never done such a thing, I wouldn’t do it, and I couldn’t do it even if I wanted to.”
Giss’ accusation that The Times conspired with Abramson to run the piece “is insane,” adds Noel Greenwood, deputy managing editor. “I don’t recall (the article), but that wouldn’t happen. We don’t make arrangements with anyone on the outside to run an article that would help to further his or her career. It would be the worst kind of breach of ethics I can imagine.”
DEPENDING ON her mood, Abramson’s rationale for her line of work can vary. “I was very heavily bathed in the backwash of the Holocaust,” she says. “And I was paranoid that by being Jewish, they’d get me. When I realized who ‘they’ were--namely Germany or a bad government--I understood that governments could do that to citizens. I felt I needed a defense.
“Psychologically, I really did feel this way, that I did not want to get rolled over. I used to think of it as the steamroller of justice. And I did not want other people to get rolled over. And if I became a lawyer, then I’d know the rules. And I could see it coming.”
What, exactly, is “it”? She rolls her eyes, curls a scornful lip, then sighs in exasperation. “The Gestapo, of course,” she nearly hisses. “The SS. Fascism in all its ugly forms. Injustice. Inhumanity. We already have a very heavy dose of it from its precursor--intolerance.
“The way the world talks about people accused of crime, it’s like they’re not from the same human species as the rest of us,” Abramson continues. “It’s the same way that the Nazis talked about the Jews. Or the way the Turks treated the Armenians. Once you dehumanize people, it’s very easy to kill them.
“I see myself,” she says, “as a soldier in a war. The war is the tension in this democratic society between freedom and order. The freedom is a lawful freedom, a constitutional freedom. And the order can drift to repression. The tension is to keep the balance between freedom and order without drifting into either anarchy or repression.”
On another day, after a good night’s sleep, she says she takes capital cases because she enjoys the challenge--they’re the hardest kind of legal work with the most at stake. She likes to compete with herself. “I like to torture myself is closer to the truth,” she says, laughing. “Murder is not a good source of income.” And then: “It’s fun. Even when it’s grim, it’s fun.”
Like most defense lawyers, she is loath to discuss the moral anguish attorneys face in representing a guilty client. “I don’t have moral or ethical reservations about what I’m doing,” she says. “At all.”
Abramson maintains a fairly small caseload; she’s currently handling three murder cases, one of them court appointed, and a handful of other felony cases. Some cases she simply won’t take. She flat out won’t take drug cases, she says, because taking money and then pleading the client guilty would be too boring. If she doesn’t feel she can work with a client, as she did after meeting the accused Hillside Strangler, Angelo Buono Jr., she’ll reject the case. Family considerations also factor in; though she was never asked, she let it be known that she wouldn’t represent Lawrence Bittaker, who was ultimately convicted of rape and murder, because his five teen-age victims were too close in age at the time to her daughter.
“Everyone has fantasies about their children disappearing,” she says. “I’ve got living color.” She also feels lucky that child-molestation cases “haven’t come bouncing my way. I’d rather not do them.” But Abramson is also a realist about her legal duties.
“You’re there to do whatever you can to get the most beneficial result. You’re not necessarily there to get him off. Lots of cases I’ve been on, both myself and the client understood he wasn’t getting off. The question was, what was he going to be punished for? What did he really do? And morally, what was the appropriate result?
“Sometimes,” she adds, “the duty you owe your client conflicts with the fact that you don’t like him. And there have been very few clients over the years who I do not like. That does not mean I actively like all of them. But the real conflict arises when you’re doing all this work for the person, and you don’t like him. It’s so daunting when you care so much about their cause, and you really do want to help. And every step of the way, they’re fighting you.”
In fact, she says, she’s only had one such client. “He lied to me about everything. I mean everything.”
Then isn’t she obliged to tell him to find another lawyer? “Where is it written in the contract that they gotta tell you the truth?” she asks. “Where is it written in the contract that they’ve gotta do what you want, period?”
ABRAMSON lives with her husband and their cat, Phaedra, in an unassuming Spanish-style home with blue awnings in what she calls the “slums” of Hancock Park. Her 23-year-old daughter is a film student at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. The front walkway is lined with blooming rosebushes and asters and dahlias--gardening is a weekend passion. Inside are the Arts and Crafts furnishings, a California pottery collection, an impressive art collection.
Friends say that Abramson’s need to dominate, even in deciding what restaurant to go to, is all-consuming. “To have dinner with her is very much like being on the stand,” says John Gregory Dunne. But he and others also speak of her loyalty, thoughtfulness and readiness to help others, as she did in taking a friend’s daughter to the ballet or showing up at the hospital with magazines for a friend about to give birth.
These days, Abramson’s time for socializing is limited. She puts in 14-hour days during a trial and, in general, spends far less time at home than at work--either in court, at jail or at her Wilshire Boulevard law office. Her office is a cozy, if smoke-filled, haven. The wall is painted melon, the windows are covered with silver mini-blinds, and the bookshelves are lined with Paul Conrad drawings of Richard Nixon, a picture of her daughter and a “Thank You for Smoking” sign.
Her frenetic energy is exhausting. Even she exhausts herself. After all, she is a 45-year-old woman. “She’s not a 45-year-old woman,” quips Howard Gillingham, her co-counsel on the Chinatown case and one of her closest friends. “She’s a 45-year-old bitch.”
But how long can the bitch keep at it? “I’m gonna retire in 10 years,” she says. I ask her if, like other attorneys, she has any desire to become a judge. In fact, former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. considered appointing her to the bench in 1980. But because of her infamous “fascist” letter, the Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys of Los Angeles County blocked her nomination.
It’s not the letter or the failed nomination that bothers her so much now. “Let me show you something,” she says, staring out her window. Then she stands up and reaches into a cabinet. She pulls out a plastic bag.
“I don’t know what to do with them,” she says, showing me the belongings of her client, the heroin addict who died in jail because he didn’t get medical treatment. There are a chain, a watch, a wallet. They are mildewed. “His family didn’t want them, and I can’t throw them away. I can’t throw away this man’s stuff. It was very pathetic. He was a sweet, sweet little man.”
She shoves the stuff back into the bag and sits behind her desk, propping her feet atop some file folders. She returns to the subject of a judgeship.
“I shouldn’t be a judge; they were right,” she says. “Because I’d be biased. Because I would have to squeeze myself into some mold of conformity. But I don’t want to be impartial. The world is full of people walking around being impartial, while disaster is striking. And I don’t want to be one of them.”
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