The State Bar of California has cleared prominent criminal defense attorney Leslie Abramson of misconduct in connection with her representation of Erik Menendez, who was convicted with his brother, Lyle, three years ago of murdering their wealthy parents.
The outspoken Abramson, who rose to national fame during the brothers' first, televised trial, came under the state bar's scrutiny after her own expert witness accused her at the 1996 retrial of pressuring him to remove incriminating material from his notes.
Psychiatrist William Vicary disclosed during the trial's penalty phase that Abramson pressured him to delete entries from his notes on sessions with Erik, the younger of the brothers. Abramson has steadfastly denied it.
The brothers were convicted in March 1996, of first-degree murder in the shotgun slayings of their parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez, at the family's Beverly Hills home. Jurors decided to spare their lives, and the brothers were sentenced to life in state prison without parole.
Although the state bar issued a rare public announcement when it opened its misconduct investigation of Abramson, the financially strapped agency left it to Abramson and her attorney, Gerald L. Chaleff, to publicize its end.
Chaleff was notified last week by a letter marked "Privileged and Confidential" that Abramson would not be disciplined.
"The state bar has completed the investigation of the allegations of professional misconduct in the . . . matter," the letter said. "Based on our investigation, we have decided to close this matter for the following reason(s): Insufficient evidence of a violations."
The state bar retained the right to reopen the case.
"I'm glad that this matter is over and Leslie is vindicated, especially since she's an outstanding lawyer doing an outstanding job for her clients," Chaleff said. "She did not commit any misconduct."
Abramson said the news that she had been cleared "sort of brightened my day." She added that she had spent thousands of dollars and hours fighting the allegation and was critical of the way the state bar publicized the investigation.
"This dragged on for three years," Abramson said. "Let's just talk about what's fair to people. My goodness gracious, I've been embarrassed all that time."
Abramson said she never doubted that she would be cleared.
But at the time the courtroom drama began to unfold, she was muzzled by a gag order and concerns that anything she said in her own defense might jeopardize her client's legal rights.
Vicary's testimony that he deleted two dozen statements Erik Menendez had made about being molested by his father and hating his parents threw the trial into chaos.
At one point, Abramson invoked her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. She later withdrew it. The three other defense lawyers asked Superior Court Judge Stanley Weisberg to remove her from the case. The judge denied the request.
In the end, however, jurors said the furor had no impact.
Chaleff said that a judge already had ruled that the material deleted from the doctor's notes was inadmissible. In addition, he pointed out, Abramson had supplied a complete copy of the doctor's original notes to the prosecution.
The prosecutor, former Deputy Dist. Atty. David Conn, had no comment.
Vicary was summoned before the state Medical Board, and struck a deal that permitted him to keep his license to practice medicine if he cooperated with the inquiry of Abramson. However, his practice has been severely affected because many lawyers are reluctant to use him was a witness.
"This has been quite a traumatic experience for me," Vicary said. But, the state bar's decision to close out the case without holding a hearing spared him the ordeal of testifying against Abramson, a longtime friend.
"I actually am quite pleased for Leslie," Vicary said. "I told her, 'Congratulations!' I think that all things considered, that was a reasonable outcome."