Menendez attorney weighs cost of justice

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The Independent Online
AMERICANS have long moaned about the high fees demanded by lawyers, yet even they have been surprised by the attorney who championed the cause of Erik Menendez, one of two rich brothers who gained world-wide notoriety after shooting dead their parents in Beverly Hills.

Leslie Abramson, a fiesty New Yorker, became a national celebrity because of her flamboyant performance in the brothers' highly publicised first trial which ended in deadlock because their two juries were unable to decide on verdicts.

During the six-month hearing, she transformed Erik's image from that of a spoilt 23- year-old yuppie, motivated to kill by greed and hatred of his parents, to that of a confused victim of parental sex abuse.

To this end, she gently picked lint off his sweaters and touched him so often that she had to be reprimanded by the judge for behaving more like a surrogate mother than an attorney. And when the case ended, her fees for what was an undeniably brilliant courtroom performance became public: dollars 790,000 (pounds 540,000).

A sizeable sum, you might think, even for a classy criminal lawyer? Ms Abramson would not agree. She has described the fee as 'inadequate', and has complained that she may go bankrupt when she again represents Erik Menendez in his forthcoming retrial, the date of which has yet to be decided.

Two weeks ago, she tried to persuade a judge, the supervisor of Los Angeles county criminal courts, to use taxpayers' money to pay her dollars 100-an-hour, up to a ceiling of dollars 250,000, to continue defending the young man. To her annoyance, the judge refused, saying he had no obligation to help her out of a 'bad business deal', and pointing out that her contract with Erik Menendez remained valid. The judge said her fees were 'anything but insubstantial'. She complained that she was being forced into 'serfdom'.

Ms Abramson's problem is that the dollars 14m estate left by the brothers' father, Jose Menendez, a millionaire entertainment executive, appears to have gone broke, depleted by debts, taxes, and legal fees. Erik Menendez, who used to enjoy private tennis coaches and fast cars, has complained that his financial crisis is so grim that he wants to sell the Jeep that he bought after shooting his parents, but he cannot, because a friend has run up parking tickets for dollars 1,500 on the vehicle.

Ms Abramson has a new tactic. During their trial Erik and Lyle Menendez (who also faces a retrial) received thousands of letters from people who accepted their contention that they were the true victims. This month, she sent them a letter asking for contributions.

How successful the strategy will be is in doubt. But when she mentioned her client's financial predicament on television, dollars 15,000 was sent to her from Americans eager to help.