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.