Leslie Abramson interview

The transcript below is from the April 30, 1996 episode of Larry King Live, which I transcribed from a VHS tape. There are a few (?) in the transcript, since I couldn’t make out certain names. The “Mr. Grant” referred to early in the transcript is former WABC “shock jock” Bob Grant, who was the first guest on the episode. The interview with Leslie Abramson is approximately 20 minutes in length.

Larry King Live – April 30, 1996

KING: We’re back and we welcome Leslie Abramson, the attorney for Erik Menendez. She is regarded in Los Angeles and around the country as one of the best defense attorneys in the business. It’s nice to have you with us, Leslie.

ABRAMSON: Nice to be here, Larry.

KING: Any thoughts on Mr. Grant and that whole hullaballo?

ABRAMSON: You know, it’s funny, I was in New York City a couple of years ago and I first heard about this guy, there was a piece in a New York Magazine, and what struck me was, I think it was him who was talking about lining wellfare mothers up against the wall. You know, and I was thinking, I grew up in New York City. This was the city — the original melting pot, the city of tolerance, you know, pre-Mayor Koch. And it really hurt that there’s a guy who’s such a hate monger on the air in New York. And he clearly is a hate monger.

KING: You think it’s not just poor attempts at humor?

ABRAMSON: No it’s — you know, humor can be very vicious. Humor is a way to conceal real evil intent. No, I think he’s a hateful guy.

KING: You’re writing a book, Leslie?

ABRAMSON: I’m writing a book.

KING: The biography of Leslie?

ABRAMSON: The autobiography of my career basically. My private life I try to keep private.

KING: Simon and Schu — You gonna do an autobiography you got to discuss your private life.

ABRAMSON: Well, it just sort of weaves its way in and out. But, you know, we keep all the secrets. That’s the way — you write the one with the secrets when you’re 70 and nobody cares anymore.

KING: This will be for Simon and Schuster?

ABRAMSON: Simon and Schuster, yeah.

KING: You’re gonna deal with trials?

ABRAMSON: Yeah, I deal with cases and how they’re handled. That sort of takes poeple into the inner workings of how a defense lawyer operates. It’s less preachy than, you know, walk with me in my shoes.

KING: What’s the latest with Leslie and all that happened at the end of the trial? That you had influenced or asked a psychia– Tell us what that story was.

ABRAMSON: It’s a long complicated story. What it boils —

KING: Break it down.

ABRAMSON: Alright. It’s a two-part story. Three years ago when we were preparing for this witness to take the stand at the very very end —

KING: This is a doctor, right?

ABRAMSON: This is a psychiatrist. The very end of Menendez one. This was a very minor witness. He wasn’t my chief psychiatrist. He’s Erik’s therapist, guy who worked with the kid when the kid was really screwed up. So we’re preparing him to testify. The judge has made a whole series of rulings in the case. I sit down with him and I say, “this isn’t gonna be admissible, this isn’t gonna be admissible, this isn’t gonna be admissible, the judge has ruled, so white it out before we turn over these notes to the prosecution.” There are a couple of other things in his notes that I said, “I don’t understand what this means. Clarify.” This is the conversation I’m having with him. As it turns out, which I don’t find out for almost three years, he took stuff out instead of just blanking it out. That’s the whole —

KING: Is blanking it out ordinary? Does that happen —

ABRAMSON: Blanking it out happens all the time.

KING: Alright.

ABRAMSON: Happens all the time.

KING: He takes it completely out and then he testifies?

Abramaon: Not only does he take it completely out, he rewrites the pages. And doesn’t tell me that he’s done that.

KING: And says you’ve asked him to do this?

ABRAMSON: No, he didn’t say I asked him to rewrite. He says I told him to take out. So that’s the status of what happens three years ago.

KING: And what’s the status now?

ABRAMSON: I turn the original notes over now to the prosecution for this trial. They have the absolute original version. So in this trial —

[Image of Vicary on screen]

KING: That’s him?

ABRAMSON: Yes, that’s Mike. And he’s a good friend of mine going back for years and years. Someone I like. Someone who I think is very honest. We just have a real difference in recalling what all happened.

KING: The Bar Association trying to take some action? Are you in any kind of legal trouble?

ABRAMSON: No.

KING: Not at all?

ABRAMSON: I’m not in any kind of legal trouble. I’m in PR trouble, which is —

KING: Because?

ABRAMSON: Well, because, because —

KING: Is there an investigation going on? Is it going to —

ABRAMSON: There is no investigation going on at this time that I’m aware of. The Bar Association has said they wouldn’t do anything if at all until the case is over. And this thing boils down to the same kind of thing people saw a lot in the Simpson case. You know, when the lawyers wouldn’t turn the document over and they got hit with 900 dollars fines. It’s the same kind of thing, but I have not been fined by the judge, he hasn’t done anything.

KING: Have you spoken to your client since the verdict?

ABRAMSON: I spoke to my client today in fact. Had a very interesting talk with my client.

KING: About?

ABRAMSON: I’ll tell you a little bit about it.

KING: Please.

ABRAMSON: He authorized me to tell you.

KING: Okay.

ABRAMSON: I’ve been —

KING: This is Erik?

ABRAMSON: This is Erik. I’ve been trying to figure out where he’s gonna wind up spending the rest of his life. The prisons are very very brutal places, very scary places. So I’m getting increasingly depressed thinking about this person, who is a person with sensitivity, with feeling, with compassion for other people, not a tough guy, being in these prisons. So I told him today on the phone — I haven’t gone to see him in a while. I said, “Erik, I’m getting really depressed about where you’re gonna wind up.” He says, “Oh come see me, I’ll cheer you up.” I said, “But I’m very scared about what’s gonna happen.” He says, “Don’t worry about me. I don’t want you to worry about me. I’ll be okay.” Now I — this is just either dementia on his part or he — I mean, I know that he cares a great deal about how I feel about things.

KING: Does he appear to have totally accepted this now?

ABRAMSON: He has. It’s just the way he accepted being in jail. What always convinced me, Larry, that he really had a horrible childhood, was how easily he accommodated to the horrible life in jail. In fact, in the first, I’d say year and a half, he thought jail was a freer environment than anything he had known before in his life.

KING: When the trial — When the verdict came in and they recommended life, we had on relatives of the mother —

ABRAMSON: I saw the show.

KING: — and they said they never saw an indication —

ABRAMSON: I know.

KING: — of that mother doing anything — Were they lying?

ABRAMSON: I’ll tell you something about her brothers. I talked to Erik about that show and what his uncles had said on that show. And I could sit here and refute line by line what they said. You know what Erik said to me? “Don’t say anything bad about my uncles. Don’t say anything bad about my mother. Don’t say anything bad about the family. Let them heal.”

KING: Really?

ABRAMSON: Really. He always loved his uncle Brian, looked up to his uncle Brian —

KING: Brian said he loved him.

ABRAMSON: Thought his uncle Brian was his friend. Things changed at a certain point in the case. I can’t even tell you what my opinion is. He told me, “Don’t say anything bad them, let everybody rest in peace.” And that’s what I’m gonna do.

KING: How’s Lyle doing?

ABRAMSON: I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him in a while. I think okay. I mean —

KING: You didn’t represent him, but you obviously —

ABRAMSON: I didn’t represent him, but I know him very well.

KING: Sure.

ABRAMSON: You know, and I’ve seen him grow and change, and become a more sensitive person and a more emotional person than he started out —

KING: Where should — Where would you send them if you were the — does the judge have the — who —

ABRAMSON: Where would I send them?

KING: Let’s say you have no — they have to go somewhere, they’re sentenced to life. Where would you send them?

ABRAMSON: Alright, they have to go to prison somewhere.

KING: Yeah.

ABRAMSON: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t have enough expertise about these prisons.

KING: Who decides?

ABRAMSON: The Department of Corrections. I’d send them to a minimum security prison, because they are no threat to anybody, but that won’t happen.

KING: Is there a state minimum security prison?

ABRAMSON: Oh there are many many. But the problem is, the way the system works, is depending on the length of your sentence and what you’re convicted of you start out as a maximum maximum security prisoner. Prisoner which is what’s at called a level 4. So they have to go to either a level 4 prison, or if there’s some special needs — I mean, Erik does have psyciatric needs, medication needs. He might get into a level 3 prison, but —

KING: San Quentin a level 4?

ABRAMSON: — this is not camp, this is not fun.

KING: Is San Quentin level 4?

ABRAMSON: Oh yeah.

KING: Are he and Lyle gonna remain together?

ABRAMSON: I hope so.

KING: They should remain together?

ABRAMSON: They should remain together, yeah. Yeah.

KING: Because?

ABRAMSON: Well, because it’s protection for each other. And that’s the main concern that we have is for them to be protected.

KING: Does a lawyer have much of a say of how clients are treated in prison?

ABRAMSON: None.

KING: Zip.

ABRAMSON: Unless something really bad happens you can sue. But none. Department of Corrections is totally autonomous. The judge wouldn’t have any say, even if he wanted to exercise it. Really. They’re a world onto themselves.

KING: We’ll be right back with Leslie Abramson on Larry King Live, don’t go away.

[COMMERCIAL BREAK]

KING: We’re back with Leslie Abramson on Larry King Live. Life is not easy in your world of defending interesting people.

ABRAMSON: It hasn’t been easy in the last few years, I’ll tell you. It’s been stress central. I have manifested symptoms of stress I never knew existed before and during this last trial.

KING: Are you working on cases right now though?

ABRAMSON: No. I’m not working on any cases right now. I’m working on my —

KING: Why not?

ABRAMSON: Because I have called a moratorium for a few months. I want to remember who I was before I became the Menendez lawyer. I did have a life before.

KING: Are you angry with the judge for not letting in —

ABRAMSON: I’m not angry with him, no. I’ve been beaten down into submission. I think he was wrong, and I think that based on his —

KING: On not letting in certain things?

ABRAMSON: Not letting in certain things. Limiting other things. Deciding on one jury. Deciding on where the jury pool should come from. Taking away our defense at the end. I mean, I was not happy with any of these things but after a while — I mean, I’ve been losing in that court for two and a half years, after a while you can’t get angry anymore.

KING: What is it like emotionally during that part of the trial when you’re arguing to spare a life? Nothing to do with guilt or innocence, but life or death.

ABRAMSON: It is overwhelming. You know, you say to yourself, “They didn’t teach us this in law school.” It’s like going in to do brain surgery with no training. I mean, there is no way to describe how that responsibility of somebody else’s life is so bizarre. I mean, you’re just a lawyer. You’re just a lawyer. You know, you’re just an ordinary slop lawyer, and you’ve gotta get up there in front of twelve strangers and say, “Don’t kill this person.” It’s extremly bizarre, it’s a terribly taxing job.

KING: Might also be tough on the prosecution too, is it not? “Kill this person.”

Abramson, Well, that depends on whether you’re a prosecutor with a soul or not. It’s tough on the ones with souls. Some of them have refused to do it. There’s a judge in Los Angeles, a very fine man named Richard Neidorf, who was a D.A., who did one death penalty argument and told his office he’d never do another. That’s a mensch.

KING: You’re obviously opposed to the death penalty.

ABRAMSON: I’m very opposed to the death penalty.

KING: Did you have any fears that they would get it?

ABRAMSON: Oh yeah. You bet I did. Because, first of all, we were stunned by the first-degree murder verdicts. We thought that was very extreme given the evidence.

KING: What did you think you’d get?

ABRAMSON: We thought we’d get seconds, actually. I mean, we didn’t think we could do well because of the way the rulings had shaped the trial, but we thought that what we were really looking at were seconds, so we were stunned with the firsts.

KING: So therefore you thought a good possibility of —

ABRAMSON: Oh yeah. For sure.

KING: Now, sentencing is in July.

ABRAMSON: Right.

KING: What are we waiting for? We know what he’s gonna give them, right?

ABRAMSON: Yeah, but we have to make a record for motion for new trial. There’s about twenty different rulings, significant rulings, the judge made, that we want to list as error. And we have to bring that all back to the judge, give him a chance to fix it, and then they’ll be sentenced.

KING: What did it bring to you with a lot of the community laughing since here were two guys who obviously did what they were charged — I mean, they did this murder, they went back out to that car, they got another gun, it was brutal —

ABRAMSON: They didn’t get another gun, but okay.

KING: — I mean, how much of it came on to you, that you are defending —

ABRAMSON: Oh, I mean, you know, you know as a defense lawyer that you’re not gonna win any pet popularity contest. I usually put that into a shorthand saying, I’m not Shirley Temple, everybody isn’t gonna love me. And it goes with the turf of being a defense attorney. In this case though, I think I saw all the evils that I knew would attend a trial when it got high exposure, high publicity. And this kind of cruelty that runs through. One particular aspect to the media. Like Mr. Grant. You know, the hate jocks of talk radio. That was actually the worst element of the publicity about the Menendez brothers. One of the local stations had a contest called “Fry The Menendi.” I mean, these are human beings, these are young kids at the time —

KING: Had a contest?

ABRAMSON: Oh yeah. And an acution. Cruel, mean-spiritedness. You know what I don’t quite understand and maybe you know, Larry, because you talk to people all the time. Where is all the anger and the hatred that’s directed towards criminal defendants, people in public life, where is it coming from? What is making all these people in this country so unhappy that they get this worked up about things that are outside their own life experience.

KING: (?)’s theory is there’s no Communism to hate anymore.

ABRAMSON: Maybe that’s right. (?) is dead, how do you know that’s his theory?

KING: He told me that thirty years ago.

ABRAMSON: There was still Communism then.

KING: He said the big problem is gonna come when Communism falls —

ABRAMSON: Maybe that’s it. Maybe the country —

KING: He forecast hate radio.

Ahramson: Maybe the country doesn’t have a political enemy, so we turning on each other. It’s really ugly.

KING: What did you make — Did the Simpson verdict have an effect on your trial, you think?

ABRAMSON: I don’t know, but I cried when it came out, I’ll tell you.

KING: You cried?

ABRAMSON: I cried. I was in the Van Nuys courthouse —

KING: I thought all defense attorneys wanted him not guilty?

ABRAMSON: No, I said, “This is bad for the boys, and everybody else. It’s gonna be payback time.”

KING: Why?

ABRAMSON: Because the people, the real people of the country got the wrong view of the criminal justice system. They thought guilty people were walking out all the time. And in fact, innocent people are being convicted. And sort of semi guilty people are being overconvicted, which is what I think happened to the Menendez brothers.

KING: So Simpson was the exception?

ABRAMSON: Absolutely. The extreme, bizarre, distorted, out there, never happened before, never happen again exception, but people — it made people angry at the system, and they were gonna take it out on other people. Not consciously.

KING: Do you believe in Robert Shapiro’s book that contends that whether you thought he was guilty or innocent they didn’t prove him guilty?

ABRAMSON: Well, I don’t know. It depends on each individuals juror levels. I mean, I as a juror might have felt differently than the ones who sat there, but I as a criminal defense lawyer should never be a juror, I’m one of the most cynical people on Earth.

KING: Back with your questions for Leslie Abramson after this, don’t go away.

[COMMERCIAL BREAK]

KING: We’re back with Leslie Abramson. Let’s go to some phone calls. Milford, Connecticut, hello.

Caller: Hi Larry.

KING: Hi.

Caller: Ms. Abramson —

ABRAMSON: Yes.

Caller: — did the lack of cameras in the courtroom for the second trial impact your case in a negative or positive way, and how?

ABRAMSON: Well, psychologically on the lawyers it impacted it in a positive way because we’re under less pressure knowing there wasn’t some smart-pants like us out there critiquing every move we made. I don’t know if it had any effect whatsoever on the judge and his rulings or any effect on the jurors, since obviously the judge would never tell me, and I haven’t talked to the jurors about it. But generally speaking, I preferred a trial without cameras.

KING: Without?

Abramson. Without. Well, I always was opposed to it, and I’ve been proven right.

KING:: But don’t we have a right to our courtroom?

ABRAMSON: You have a right to go and sit, Larry, they’ll let you in. You could sit there like anybody else. The camera distorts. And the commentary distorts even more. And you know, I’m guilty of that myself. I was a commentator on Simpson. I tried to be a very restrained one, but I remember a few smart remarks I made during the course of it I probably shouldn’t have made. It’s too tempting to give your own opinion, to form your own conclusions.

KING: Why does that trial linger with us so much? Why do we keep talking about it?

Abramson? Simpson? Because it was something we all shared. I mean, I have a theory about it. The good side of it, it gave everybody of every race, color and creed something to talk about at the bus stop, at the lunch counter, everywhere. It’s something we all shared together.

KING: (?), Massachusetts for Leslie Abramson. Hello.

Caller: Yes, I’d like to know what her comments would be about Marcia Clark’s style and how maybe some similarities.

ABRAMSON: I don’t know that Marcia and I are very simliar, but I’ve always liked her very much. I think she’s a very good lawyer. That’s really all I can say.

KING: Like her as a prosecutor?

ABRAMSON: I like her as a person. I liked her as a prosecutor. I thought in court she had a very good style. I don’t know who was behind the tactics and strategy of the case which everyone has criticized endlessly, so you don’t need my two cents on it. But I’ve always had a very positive feeling about Marcia.

KING: What’s your overview of judge Ito?

ABRAMSON: I’ve always liked judge Ito a lot.

KING: Tried cases before him?

ABRAMSON: Yes. In fact I went to see him a few weeks ago to commiserate with “Ain’t it awful to be notorious?” It is.

KING: He dislikes it?

ABRAMSON: He dislikes it.

KING: You dislike it?

ABRAMSON: I dislike it. I hate it.

KING: But the plus side is you get clients?

ABRAMSON: You don’t get clients. You don’t get clients. They all think you’re too expensive, or you’re too busy, or if they hire you someone will think you shotgunned your parents to death. They associate you with your case. You don’t get clients. No one understands this. Notoriety doesn’t help you be a criminal lawyer, it helps get you on television. If you want to be on television…

KING: We’ll be back with our remaining moments with Leslie Abramson. By the way, tomorrow night we’ll have Robert Stack here and a whole program devoted to “Unsolved Mysteries.” Should be fascinating. We’ll be right back with Leslie, don’t go away.

[COMMERCIAL BREAK]

KING: We’re back and we go to Bend, Oregon. Hello.

Caller: Hello. Mr. King, I love your show, you’re great.

KING: Thank you.

Caller: My question for Miss–

KING: Miss Abramson.

Caller: Miss Abramson?

KING: Yes.

Caller: My question is, what’s life going to be like for you after this is all over? Will it get back to normal for you?

ABRAMSON: I don’t remember what normal is. Normal was six years ago. I don’t know what life’s gonna be like, I’m sort of keeping my options open, I have a lot of choices.

KING: There a chance you might leave law?

ABRAMSON: There’s a chance I might leave law. There’s a chance I might go to work for a law firm, which would be a new experience.

KING: Big law firm? Corporate? Big law firm?

ABRAMSON: Big law firm, corporate, business.

KING: Marker? Meyer?

ABRAMSON: Schmidt and Smendrick, Hendrick, Mendrick and fool, and Abramson. There’s a chance I’ll be doing television.

KING: Ah, what kind?

ABRAMSON: Ah, I don’t know yet. I don’t know yet. I’ve been trying to do something newsy, opinionated, but not hate, not angry. If this can be done.

KING: Have you thought of a format?

ABRAMSON: We’ve thought of formats.

KING: Talked to networks? Talked to people?

ABRAMSON: Talked to people, talked to syndicaters, we’re talking to networks. So there’s a chance to do that. There’s a chance I won’t do nothing for a while. I might actually stay home and raise the baby —

KING: Your husband is in journalism, right?

ABRAMSON: Kid would fall over at a shock if mommy was home during the day.

KING: Your husband is in journalism?

ABRAMSON: My husband works the Los Angeles Times.

KING: Did that affect his reportage? Married to you?

ABRAMSON: No no no. He’s actually an excellent court reporter. He was on the Simpson beat. We had something really in common.

KING: Give him a plug, his name is what?

ABRAMSON: His name is Tim Rutten, and he won a Times editorial award, he with Henry Weinstein for their coverage on the Simpson beat.

KING: And by the way, we’re gonna do a show on this upcoming, but Leslie adopted a baby. We’re gonna do a show on adoption.

ABRAMSON: You should do a show on the kind of adoption I did.

KING: Would you come on?

ABRAMSON: Yeah.

KING: There’s nothing like it, right?

ABRAMSON: There is nothing like it. I always tried to tell you you should do this.

KING: That’s right. And you adopted while working on the Menenedez, right?

ABRAMSON: I adopted while working. It took two days off in the middle of Menendez one to be at the hospital with my birth mother, catching the baby as he came out. It’s a remarkable experience. Open adoption is a fascinating experience.

KING: And some thing — you don’t walk around thinking of him as adopted, do you?

ABRAMSON: No, and you know what, there’s a campaign by adoptive parents, and I would really like to see us win this campaign —

KING: Which is?

ABRAMSON: To stop having the media identify people’s children as “adopted children.”

KING: Do they do that?

ABRAMSON: Constantly. Any celebrity. I was watching a George Burns biography on A&E, “his adopted children.” They’re his children. They make second class citizens out of —

KING: Really? I didn’t even know they were adopted.

ABRAMSON: It’s all over the place. Everytime — you watch. You start being sensitive to that issue. You’ll see it in print, you’ll hear it on television, on the radio.

KING: I never thought —

ABRAMSON: Yeah, it’s discriminates against these children.

KING: Thanks Leslie, as always.

ABRAMSON: Nice to see you, Larry.

KING: You’ll be back on our adoption show.

ABRAMSON: Yes.

KING: And back a lot in the futu — when the book comes out.

ABRAMSON: Yes.

KING: Our guest has been Leslie Abramson, the attorney for Erik Menendez. Tomorrow night Robert Stack and “Unsolved Mysteries.” Friday night, Sharon Stone. And Saturday night, a tribute to the legandary Mickey Rooney. And one week from tonight, Peter Jennings. Good night.

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