The most dramatic part of the Menendez trial -- the retrial, that is -- was not watching two ghostly young men sit in silence as a prosecutor demanded their deaths for the crime of murdering their parents.

It was watching their star attorney sit in silence as a colleague pleaded for their lives in her stead.

Leslie Abramson, condemned to silence. Gagged, as it were, in that final, critical moment after five years of hellbent, heaven-rending fury in defense of her client, Erik Menendez, and his brother, Lyle. Worst of all, silenced by accusations that she ordered evidence altered, an alleged ethical breach that nearly got her thrown off the case.

There she sat at the defense table, her hair a frizzy yellow mess, her hands fiddling with pens and papers, as co-counsel Barry Levin -- practically mute through the seven-month proceeding -- argued against the death penalty and for life in prison without parole.

"Erik Menendez is a cold-blooded killer?" Levin asked, pacing along the rail separating spectators from the court. "When did he become one? Was he a schoolyard bully? Did he torture small animals?"

Abramson bit her nails.

As the judge called a break, she rose and whirled on her heel. "This is the sickest thing to have to do," she spat at no one in particular, the sort of vintage, visceral eruption that sent Court TV's ratings through the roof during Menendez I. "It's sick, and it's not human."

What would Abramson have told the court? The world will never know. The Menendez saga ended with "the boys," as she calls them, saved from lethal injection. But a new saga will open as Abramson, twice named trial lawyer of the year by the L.A. Criminal Courts Bar Association, faces an inquiry by the state bar and, possibly, the district attorney.

Abramson starts by destroying the enemy. In this case, it is William Vicary, a noted forensic psychiatrist who has testified that he rewrote his notes of therapy sessions with Erik Menendez at Abramson's insistence.

It's not even close to a fair fight.

"I think he really has a very bad memory," she says, warming up slowly in an interview in her Hollywood office. "It was so foolish, saying those things against himself that were not really true." She picks up a little speed. "It's not that he did something unethical in rewriting his notes from therapy, taken from a hysterical person in a noisy setting." She pauses. "I've been talking to ethics people. He had the right to clarify his notes. But" -- and she moves in for the kill -- "he has an unfortunate tendency when challenged to fall on his sword for no reason, to cover himself with guilt and recrimination." A beat. "He exaggerates his sins. It's very unfortunate."

In the closing days of the retrial, as the jury heard testimony to decide what penalty to choose for the young men it had just convicted of first-degree murder, Vicary revealed under cross-examination that he deleted 24 passages from his notes on interviews with Erik during the 1993 trial. A frequent expert witness who teaches clinical psychiatry at the University of Southern California, Vicary said he altered his notes at the behest of Abramson, who called the material prejudicial and irrelevant. The deletions were discovered when prosecutor David Conn noticed a discrepancy between his copy of the notes and that of the witness.

Among the passages removed from the notes, Vicary said, were that Erik and Lyle had discussed "what it would be like to live without our parents" a week before the murders, and that Erik admitted they made up a story that their father's "homosexual lover" warned the brothers that their parents planned to kill them.

Caught off guard when asked to respond in court, Abramson at first took the Fifth Amendment, but later withdrew that claim, saying the exchange was protected by attorney-client privilege. In proceedings closed to the press, the three other defense attorneys asked that Abramson be removed from the case. After consultations -- presumably including Erik Menendez, for whom Abramson has become nothing less than a surrogate mother -- she was allowed to remain, but was barred from further arguments before the jury. A general gag order prevented anyone from discussing the case with the media.

The gag order now lifted, Abramson says Vicary is lying.

Regarding material she considered privileged and damaging to her client, "I asked him to do ordinary, straight-out editing," Abramson says, dragging on one of many consecutive cigarettes (she plans to quit now that the trial is over). "He testified that he chose to rewrite. I never told him to do that. Indeed I didn't. He never told me he had done it." Abramson says she asked Vicary to "clarify" another four or five passages because they were out of context and ambiguous, but he just cut them out.

"Look," she says, "you don't change notes, you simply block out what the other side is not entitled to see. . . . I anticipated him to go over the lines in black, or to white it out. He decided to take the path of least resistance, and rewrote them to look like the originals."

Vicary, it seems, is prepared to let Abramson flatten him -- no doubt he still has hopes of working in this town again. "I am not going to call Leslie Abramson a liar," he says. "I have admiration and affection for her. I want her to have success in the future."

But he is sticking to his story. "She and I argued about this for hours," he says. "Had she just said, Wipe this out, cross it out, black it out,' don't you think I could have just done it right there in her office? I'm saying she said, Take it out . . . .' The logical conclusion was that rewriting would be the only way to accomplish what she was insisting on."

What happens now? So far Abramson hasn't heard from Superior Court Judge Stanley M. Weisberg's office, a good sign for her, or the district attorney's office, which doesn't mean much. A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles District Attorney says the office does not comment on investigations. Jerrianne Hayslett, the criminal court's public information officer, says Weisberg refuses comment on whether he will hold Abramson in contempt.

But the State Bar of California will investigate. "We do await the judge's lead on this," says Tracy Genesen, special assistant to the chief trial counsel. "If we don't get it, we will certainly take our own look." Penalties could range from a private letter of reproval to disbarment.

Abramson dismisses the whole issue with a quick toss of the head. "I hope the district attorney is not wasting taxpayer money on investigating a non-crime," she says. As for the bar, "I've been a member of the bar for 27 years. If they want to investigate, I welcome that." Above Contempt

Abramson, 52, has spent her working life building a reputation as a 4-foot-11, fire-eating, mud-slinging, nuclear-strength pain in the legal butt.

As indeed she is. Viewers who tuned in during the first Menendez trial to see Abramson's wrath unleashed in court and who hung on her pithy analysis of the O.J. Simpson trial as a commentator on ABC would have loved Menendez II. The cameras were banned from the courtroom, and Abramson abandoned any and all restraint.

This time her fury was directed not only at the deceased, Jose and Kitty Menendez, parents who, she argued, through years of emotional and sexual abuse practically pushed their sons into killing them, but also against the judge, who barred many of the witnesses she had called in the first trial, which ended in a hung jury.

In objection after objection, motion after motion, Abramson demanded -- she never pleads -- a mistrial, more time to recast her arguments, more witnesses. Consistently denied by Weisberg, she would mutter asides, swearing under her breath or remarking, "This is unbelievable." On the day Weisberg dealt the final blow to her defense -- by throwing out the verdict of involuntary manslaughter for the killing of Kitty Menendez and limiting the jury's choices to first- or second-degree murder or acquittal -- Abramson argued doggedly, to no avail, that the brothers acted out of fear of their mother as well as their father.

"My view is as it was Friday," Weisberg said. "I don't think the jury could reasonably conclude that there was reasonable provocation."

Abramson sat rigid with righteous anger.

"Anything else?" the judge asked.

"Yes," she snapped. "May I leave now?"

This sort of demeanor has made Abramson plenty of enemies, but probably even more fans. The suburban housewives -- Menendez groupies -- who showed up daily at the Van Nuys courtroom were as attached to her as to the handsome young defendants, championing her in the hallways during breaks and leaving nasty messages on her behalf on the answering machines of anti-Abramson pundits.

Amazingly, Abramson has never been held in contempt. Judges seem to tolerate her either because they respect her undeniable courtroom brilliance, or because she intimidates -- or quite possibly entertains -- them. Prosecutors, however, can't stand her: "I just find her offensive in general to deal with, so I ignore her as much as possible," says Assistant District Attorney Conn. "The number of times I've spoken to her I can count on one hand."

It has also been noted that Abramson's aggressive style sometimes turns off male jurors, while it appeals to women. In the first Menendez trial the jury was hung on a 6-6, male-female split over Erik, with the men favoring a murder verdict and the women choosing manslaughter. "There's an abrasive quality in her that men react to, like, That's why I divorced my first wife,' " says Stanley Goldman, a Loyola University law professor who once worked with Abramson in the Los Angeles Public Defender's Office.

But one of the male jurors in the retrial says he respects her tenacity. "I was very impressed. I think she's a fighter for her client," says Andrew Wolfberg, a novice lawyer now looking for a job. "I wouldn't want to be married to Leslie Abramson, but I wouldn't want to be married to Johnnie Cochran either." Dead Is Dead'

Like most criminal lawyers, Abramson is not out to win popularity contests. She's just out to win. Which she does often. Of 15 capital cases she has tried, she has lost only one defendant to death row: Ricardo Rene Sanders, convicted of felony murder for killing four people in a Bob's Big Boy restaurant in Los Angeles in 1990. She is now challenging the conviction, citing the revelation of a corrupt "snitch" system inside the jails that helped seal her client's fate.

"I had the much better case, and she still beat me up," Harvey Giss, who prosecuted Sanders and is one of Abramson's avowed enemies, told American Lawyer a few years back. "She ate me alive. I went home every day of the damn trial talking to myself. It took years off my life. But she made me a better lawyer."

Abramson won acquittal for Khalid Parwez, a medical doctor accused of murdering and dismembering his 11-year-old son, and voluntary manslaughter for Arnel Salvatierra, a 17-year-old who sent his father a faked death threat and then killed him while he slept. In that case she accused the dead parent of child abuse, a strategy that worked better for Salvatierra than it did for Erik Menendez.

In nearly all cases, Abramson's attachment to her clients goes far beyond the average professional relationship. But never so much as with the Menendez "boys," who were 18 and 21 at the time of the killings in 1989; she took on the case about six months later. Abramson sees the brothers as victims rather than criminals. "I've represented people charged with murder for 27 years, and these guys just don't measure up to anybody else I've ever represented," she says. "These are not murderers. These are troubled kids in a very difficult and grotesque home environment, and they cracked." They also ran though their parents' millions by the retrial -- but while Lyle got a public defender, Abramson worked pro bono for his younger brother.

She is infuriated by their sentence, life in jail without possibility of parole. "It's a grotesquely disproportionate verdict and punishment for what happened here," she says, oblivious to any irony in her remarks. "When children kill their parents, something is wrong in that family. It's a different moral mix for a sexual predator, those who kill strangers. They really are a scourge of society. . . . This is a different degree of moral awfulness."

And what about the parents, killed with 12-gauge shotguns as they watched TV in their den, then shot in the kneecaps to make it look like a Mafia hit? "I don't react the way the public does to homicide," she says curtly. "Dead is dead. It doesn't matter if you're hit by a truck or anything else."

Abramson's impassioned defense of the underdog is rooted in a deep mistrust of government. She grew up in a family that was "rocketing off the Holocaust," as she puts it, losing nearly all of her German- and Russian-born relatives to Hitler's extermination camps, though her grandparents escaped. Her maternal grandmother was defiantly communist and a pro-labor activist, but Abramson was educated during the height of the Cold War, when Stalin's crimes were part of the lesson plan in New York City grade schools.

"I have always been very concerned about the government overreaching," she says. "They have the power to destroy individuals, which is us. A murderer is a citizen. The laws are the first line of attack on citizens. If the government is going to take on a citizen, it's under the criminal laws. . . . Then you have a multi-million-dollar agency prosecuting a crime, and you are the indigent. This is not a level playing field."

Raised by her mother and grandmother (her father abandoned the family when she was 6), Abramson married young and had a child, divorced, and in 1964 moved to Los Angeles, where she earned a law degree at UCLA. She married Timothy Rutten, a reporter at the Los Angeles Times. After six years in the city's Public Defender's Office, Abramson went into private practice, earning a reputation in the legal community for her take-no-prisoners tactics.

She has argued tirelessly for her clients, squeezing out of the system whatever advantage she could. And now she's tired. "This case was incredibly stressful the first time around, and was monstrous the second time," she says. "Certainly this will be my last capital case for a while. I need a breather from this. But by the same token, I'm not ready to do nothing."

Abramson had a proposal last fall to host a newsmagazine show for Fox that has since fallen through; television still interests her. Maybe, she says, she'll join a large law firm. She does need to earn some money. The Terminator

Leslie Abramson doesn't smile much. Her state of permanent intensity together with her topaz eyes and whorl of blond hair -- today styled more neatly for a photographer -- give her a distinctly feral quality, like a bobcat ready to strike.

And strike she does, blithely and at random. She vaporizes Robert Shapiro, one of O.J. Simpson's Dream Team, for kissing up to the media: "I never had much respect for him, but then I thought, Silly man, they're going to bite your head off.' " She excoriates yesterday's TV journalist for showing incredulity during their interview: "Who gives a {expletive} what you find hard to believe? You're the messenger!" And she abruptly cuts short today's interview over the suggestion that her clients could not be compared to Mother Teresa: "This is over. You don't know anything about my clients. You have an attitude."

When she cools off, the conversation resumes on more neutral terrain, on the post-Simpson public hostility toward criminal defense lawyers, on fan mail and death threats and Erik's recent loss of phone privileges for having hidden a pound of coffee in his cell.

She finally manages a smile when she brings up her 2 1/2-year-old son, a towheaded angel (whose name she doesn't want to reveal) adopted at birth near the end of the first Menendez trial. She's raising him as a Catholic, her husband's religion, and has learned to go to church on occasion.

Not that she believes in God, of course. The truth is, Abramson has a real problem with authority. Though you might have guessed that by now.

"I once had a judge who was a total authoritarian. He was the father of two daughters, and he had trouble with me because I wouldn't say, Yes, Daddy. No, Daddy,' " she recalls. "He likes his women meek. I wasn't meek."

She adds: "My role model is Joan of Arc, and anyone else who's been burned at the stake." CAPTION: Barred from making closing arguments in the murder trial to which she had devoted years of effort, Leslie Abramson denies allegations of tampering with evidence. "I hope the district attorney is not wasting taxpayer money on investigating a non-crime," she says. CAPTION: "Certainly this will be my last capital case for a while," Abramson says of the Menendez trial. "I need a breather from this."