(born May 25, 1941), a former New York criminal defense attorney,
attracted international media attention when he was accused of murder
and convicted of manslaughter in the November 2, 1987, death of a
six-year-old girl, Elizabeth ("Lisa"),
whom he and his live-in partner Hedda Nussbaum had "adopted".
Steinberg had reportedly been hired to locate a suitable adoptive
family for Lisa, but instead took the child home and raised her with
Nussbaum, never filing formal adoption papers.
Crime and punishment
specifically accused of hitting Lisa on the head and then not
seeking medical attention for the child, supposedly because he was
under the influence of cocaine.
She died at St. Vincent Hospital
after being removed from life support on November 4, 1987 three days
later after being transported from the apartment in New York's
Greenwich Village that Steinberg shared with Lisa, Mitchell (a
younger child also adopted by Steinberg, 18 months old at the time
of Lisa's death), and Steinberg's partner Hedda Nussbaum.
Both the boy and Nussbaum showed signs of physical abuse,
and Nussbaum's battered, unkempt appearance did much to fuel the
media frenzy that accompanied the story of Lisa's death.
In exchange for her testimony
against Steinberg, Nussbaum was not prosecuted for events related to
Lisa's death (Nussbaum was alone in the apartment with an
unconscious and bleeding Lisa for over ten hours without seeking any
medical attention for the girl). At Steinberg's trial, his defense
suggested that Nussbaum's extensive injuries, which included severe
damage to the face and permanent spinal damage (which did not limit
her ability to move or walk), resulted from a consensual
sadomasochistic relationship between the two. Her attorneys claimed
her remaining with him when he beat her was a sign of battered
Unable to convict
Steinberg on the most serious charge of second-degree murder (in New
York State at that time, first degree murder applied only to those
who killed police officers or had committed murder while already
serving a sentence for a previous murder), the jury instead
convicted him of the second most serious charge, first-degree
manslaughter. The judge then sentenced him to the maximum penalty
then available for that charge — 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison.
On two occasions,
Steinberg was denied discretionary parole, mainly because he never
expressed remorse for the killing. However, on June 30, 2004, he was
paroled under the state's "good time" law, which mandates release of
inmates who exhibit good behavior while incarcerated after having
served as little as two-thirds of the maximum possible sentence (New
York State has since increased this ratio to six-sevenths of the
maximum term for persons convicted of violent felonies).
in spite of his good behavior, Steinberg had spent most of his
imprisonment at New York State's "Supermax" prison, the Southport
Correctional Facility, presumably to prevent him from being attacked
by other inmates.
After his release,
Steinberg moved to West 123rd Street in Harlem, where he now works
in construction. He continues to maintain his innocence.
other child in the case ended up being adopted by his natural
mother, Nicole Smigel, who then legally changed the boy's first name
On January 16, 2007, the New York
Supreme Court, Appellate Division (New York's intermediate appellate
court) upheld a $15 million dollar award against Steinberg to
Michele Launders, Lisa's birth mother.
opinion, the court rejected the position that Steinberg, acting
as his own attorney, put forth:
[F]or Steinberg to dismiss the 8
to 10 hours preceding Lisa's death as "at most eight hours of pain
and suffering" or as he alternatively states, a "quick loss of
consciousness" (emphasis supplied), demonstrates that he is as
devoid of any empathy or human emotion now as he was almost 20 years
ago when he stood trial for Lisa's homicide. As any parent and, no
doubt, most adults who have taken trips with young children can
attest, the oft-heard question, "are we there yet?" is a clear
illustration that, the more anticipated an event or destination so,
seemingly slower the passage of time in a child's mind. For Lisa,
lying on a bathroom floor, her body aching from bruises of "varying
ages," her brain swelling from her father's"staggering blow," those
8 to 10 hours so cavalierly dismissed by Steinberg must have seemed
like eternity as she waited and wondered when someone would come to
comfort her and help make the pain go away.
The case was
adapted with modifications as a Law & Order episode,
"Indifference," which ended with a long disclaimer that was read
aloud pointing out the actual conclusion of the real case. Fourteen
years later, in an episode entitled "Fixed,", the program brought
back the character inspired by Steinberg, Jacob Lowenstein, who was
killed after being released on parole. The episode was inspired by
Steinberg's actual release.
Defending Joel Steinberg
By John Lombardi - NYmag.com
May 21, 2005
Who planned Joel Steinberg’s O.J.-like white-limo ride back from
prison? His lawyer, Darnay Hoffman, who’s represented Bernie Goetz
and is married to Sidney Biddle Barrows. Now he’s presiding over a
new media circus. And in his first interview, Steinberg chillingly
maintains his innocence.
self-described “attorney of last resort,” pivots across Gramercy
Park North with a lot of grace for a big man, pointing out places of
interest: “That pale brick pile over there? Jimmy Cagney’s co-op—I
never saw him around when I was a kid, but the people in my mother’s
circle knew him. That’s Janet Malcolm’s building,” he says next, a
little breathily, indicating the other side of the park. “Now, she’s
my idea of a great journalist.”
Which segues into why we’re hiking from Gramercy to the Village to the
Seventh Avenue IRT on this steaming July morning. Hoffman—civil
defender of Bernie Goetz; husband of Sidney Biddle Barrows, the
Mayflower Madam; pursuer of Patsy Ramsey, whom he publicly accused of
being a Monster Mom—is now appeals consultant and media spinner for
Joel Steinberg, the eighties Mr. Hyde who just returned to town, to a
halfway house, the Fortune Society Castle on Riverside Drive, after
nearly seventeen years’ lockdown in Dannemora and Elmira. Hoffman is
looking for a journalist who can shed some light on the “press
distortions” that have plagued his latest, pro bono client since
November 2, 1987. That was the day Steinberg’s illegally adopted
daughter, Lisa, was found dying of head injuries in Steinberg’s
apartment at 14 West 10th Street, just off Fifth Avenue in Greenwich
Village. The 6-year-old was nude and had, according to examining
medical workers from St. Vincent’s Hospital, a huge reddish bruise on
her scalp starting at the hairline, bruises and cuts that looked like
someone had socked her on the chin, and old healing marks of different
colors on virtually every other part of her body.
The workers had gotten the call from Hedda Nussbaum,
Steinberg’s live-in punching bag (“girlfriend” hardly conveys the
relationship). Nussbaum, who resembled Sylvester Stallone at the end
of Rocky II, and who was nominally responsible for raising the
little girl, at first explained these away as the normal bumps and
scratches of early childhood, Lisa having “fallen a lot on roller
skates.” She made the call to 911 at 6:32 a.m. on November 2, mumbling
incomprehensibly at first: “What is it?” the operator asked sharply.
“She’s not breathing. We’re giving her mouth-to-mouth,” Hedda said. A
man could be heard prompting in the background.
The first officers on the scene had trouble getting
into apartment 3W, though, which was weird for a couple with a child
in trouble, and when Hedda did slowly open the door, they were
horrified: she had two black eyes, a split lip, the bridge of her nose
was gone, and shards of bony cartilage actually protruded; she had a
bandanna wrapped around her frizzled gray hair to hide spots where
clumps had been torn out; she was hunched and moved painfully, like an
old woman, though she was only 45. It would come to be regarded as one
of the most sensational crimes of the past quarter century. Nussbaum
turned prosecution witness against Steinberg, helping convict him of
manslaughter and Steinberg became enshrined in New York history as one
of its vilest monsters. Hedda, meanwhile, faded into the background,
struggling to sell her paintings. When I tried to reach her for this
piece, a friend of hers wondered if she could be paid.
“But see, those are the kinds of things the media
just battens on,” Hoffman insists, puffing, as we cross 19th Street.
“Nothing mitigating ever made it to the six o’clock news, or to the
front pages of the News or Post.”
“Like what?” I ask, wondering what Hoffman’s game
“Like Joel’s exemplary military record. He was a
lieutenant in the Air Force, when Vietnam was heating up. He had
connections to the Phoenix Program! He was a brilliant strategic
lawyer in his earlier career, able to delineate weak spots in a
prosecution case and build his defense almost instinctively. He had an
exquisitely appointed apartment [the same one, 14 West 10th], with a
bookcase filled with a leather-bound legal library, a large dog he was
quite partial to, a fireplace, the wind billowing immaculate white
curtains. It was hardly the urine-soaked, unlighted, dirty cave you
heard about ad nauseam on television.
“And he was gone from the house for three hours,
during which time Hedda could have gone for help, but didn’t. Who
knows what happened between Hedda and Lisa then? Hedda was jealous . .
. And finally, there was a medical report from the University of
Pennsylvania that listed no fractures or evidence of long-term
battering on the little girl. None of this got any mention in the
press, who—let’s face it—tend to repeat each other’s ‘party lines’ in
sensational stories like this. They’re formulaic. They’re database
Hoffman checks my quizzical look: “All right, we
want to present our side, too. And when Joel was going to be released,
I volunteered to help. That’s when I arranged for that limo ride down
from Elmira. Five-Star Limo. They said that all they had were big
white cars. And I thought of the association with meganews events of
the past: O.J.’s slo-mo chase in the white Bronco; Princess Di’s high-speed
paparazzo pursuit. We’d work those simplistic associations to do some
good, sending the signal that this was an important case,
too—‘the O.J.-Di-Joel high-speed homecoming,’ 80 to 90 miles per hour
down Route 17, those crazy TV people trying to trap us so they could
set up and get something for the six o’clock feed. There are all kinds
of evils in society . . . Do you see?”
When I later asked Joel Steinberg, during one of
the three long phone interviews I’d have with him, what he thought of
Hoffman’s white-limo strategy, he chortled in his old-neighborhood-guy
way: “You know, Hoffman started as an actor. He didn’t always look
like he does now—just kidding, heh, heh, heh. His mom was the
stage actress Toni Darnay, and his stepfather Hobe Morrison had been
drama critic at Variety or something. I think Darnay’s a very
smart guy, but let’s say he’s a little bit, uh, flamboyant—he wants to
use the media’s dumb sensationalism to make points he thinks need to
be made. I guess it’s guerrilla theater, as we used to call it back in
the seventies. He’s faithful to his clients, though.”
Darnay Hoffman hadn’t seen Joel Steinberg for years
when he picked him up on June 30, though he’d been up to visit from
time to time early on during Steinberg’s long incarceration, once
taking Sidney Biddle Barrows along (Steinberg appreciated classy women).
After the appeals were exhausted, he thought, there’d been no point.
So when Steinberg first appeared, Hoffman was a little shocked.
The New York State Parole Department had issued him
a light-green synthetic warm-up jacket and matching hat with a whitish
bill, and the years away from drugs, and regular meals and hours, had
partially rejuvenated him (Steinberg and Hedda were longtime addicts,
and had even freebased coke all night as Lisa lay dying). Despite his
grayer hair, which prison barbers had fashioned into a neo-Caesar cut,
Steinberg looked tight, if not buff, for a 63-year-old, and his
standard, slightly cockeyed expression was nearly normal. But a couple
of big guards marched him down to the limo, scowling at it. The
unspoken understanding was that Steinberg was free after serving two
thirds of his mandatory sentence (8 to 25 years) because the state had
no other options. Steinberg had been a fine inmate, never getting into
a fight, and becoming popular with some cons by working seven days a
week in the law library at Southport (Elmira), assisting them with
their post-conviction legal maneuvers. So he’s free, but Pataki and
the big pols can use him as a bogeyman forever, to show voters they
revile monsters and support family values, too. In return, Steinberg
is supposed to keep a low profile, not draw attention to himself. Slip
back into New York like Bernie Goetz, weaseling back into Manhattan’s
But that wasn’t Hoffman’s plan. “I wish you’d
chosen something else,” Steinberg said stoically, eyeing Darnay’s
“prom ride” ’95 Lincoln Town Car stretch. He was calm, not jubilant,
about leaving prison. Steinberg moved smoothly onto the gray leather
seats, ignored the press circus howling around him: There were scan-dish
TV trucks grazing each other despite all the state troopers; action-cam
news copters thwupping the air like Apaches in Fallujah; type-A
reporters bellowing: “Joel! Here, Joel! Are ya gonna visit Lisa’s
grave? Are you sorry for what ya did? Look at the camera, Joel!”
The driver, though a part-timer, was very good at
evading these pursuers, switching lanes when he saw a box-move coming
from cooperating media vehicles, sometimes going 80 mph in bursts to
outmaneuver “the flotilla,” as he’d named the press corps. At one
place in Roscoe, where they’d stopped for gas, troopers had to unblock
media cars and trucks so they could get on the road again: “So later,
when we had to pee, rather than risk more of that nonsense, we just
took some empty cognac decanters and pissed into them! [Steinberg
isn’t allowed to drink, so the limo lacked its standard full bar.] I
can tell you that Joel was very fastidious, and turned away—it’s a
prison thing of respect. You don’t show your dick to another man
unless you’re on the make."
They spent the long ride revisiting points the
Steinberg defense team had “fucked up,” as Steinberg put it, back in
’88. Ira London, his chief lawyer, came in for particular criticism:
“He mighta been more aggressive with Hedda,” Steinberg growled. “He
was too careful strategically, figuring the p.c. factor that was so
big at the time would be too big a force to buck, everybody feeling
sorry for Hedda. He screwed the time frame up, too, when I was out of
the apartment, in his statements to the press. [Lisa was killed,
according to Nussbaum’s testimony, because she’d been pestering
Steinberg to be allowed to go to dinner with him at 7 p.m. on the
night of November 1, 1987. He’d wanted to talk about an oil-well deal
with a bail bondsman he was friendly with, and the girl would have
been in the way. But she kept whining.]
“He [London] had his head up his ass,” Steinberg
said. “I shoulda represented myself.” Another reason Steinberg was so
angry was London’s reportedly huge fees. Steinberg, a man so cheap he
was feeding his family with vegetables recycled from the neighbors’
garbage at the end, loathed paying Ira at all.
All the way down Route 17, Hoffman kept fielding
calls from Parole. They were very specific about directives: Avoid the
media; get “the package” in the goddamned Castle and stay there; pull
up to 140th and Riverside and let agents escort Steinberg inside. “So
there we were, humping and bumping along, when I get this message:
‘Forget 140th, they’re all over you. Speed up and go to 145th. Stop
the car there!’ ” Hoffman told the driver and he maneuvered artfully,
gaining a half-block on the flotilla. A sedan suddenly blocked their
way. A huge agent tore the limo’s door open on Hoffman’s side, and
politely asked: “Who is Joel Steinberg?” When Steinberg nodded, the
agent grabbed his arm and helped him scramble over Hoffman’s legs:
“They hustled him into their car and screeched away,” Hoffman
remembers. “We didn’t even say good-bye . . . I’m ashamed to say, I
felt kind of relieved.”
Darnay Hoffman lives and works out of the former
Mayflower Madam’s apartment in the 200 block of West 70th Street,
conveniently near the 72nd Street subway station. Convenient because
he doesn’t drive. Doesn’t use a cell phone either, so it’s
consequently hard to reach him, and, one would think, to do business,
too: “I’m obviously not in it for the money,” he says, waving his hand
dismissively at the piled cardboard boxes of client legal files that
literally teeter above his head. The place is almost impassable, a
beautiful white fireplace utterly hidden, tastefully framed photos of
Waspy blonde kids (Sidney Biddle Barrows’s nieces) nearly obliterated
by stacks of dusty detritus, and in the micro foyer, two huge boxes
and a sealed tan garbage bag containing much of Joel Steinberg’s
Most of Hoffman’s work is civil, he says, and for
small-time clients fighting losing battles with ex-spouses or the
real-estate establishment. Recently, for example, there was a friend
of his wife’s who’d blown all her savings on a vicious divorce case
and couldn’t afford to continue—something her prosperous ex was
counting on: “Darnay took her on for nothing,” Sydney recounts, “and
began working back from there.”
Barrows, still smashing after all these years and
now working as “a personal assistant to a hedge-fund manager” in
midtown, speaks with exasperated admiration—a true testament, since
they’ve been together for ten years: “Another guy, a schmuck,
appealing a case he had no hope of winning but was pursuing through
hubris, blowing off lawyers like J.Lo blows by husbands, offered a
$5,000 deposit retainer, and Darnay turned him down because he didn’t
feel the case was winnable! And we were two months behind in our
[$1,500 monthly] rent! The last ethical lawyer in New York!” Barrows
laughs. “Twenty years ago, who’d have believed I’d be living like this?”
“Okay, so you’re an altruist,” I try, talking with
Hoffman. “What is it with all the bad guys? You’re coming on like a
walker for Hitler. Is it true Bernie Goetz had a pet chinchilla that
he took to club openings and let it run along the bar, pooping and
nipping at people? And that he used it to break the ice with girls?”
Hoffman laughs but loyally declines to confirm the
story. “Bernie’s an electronics genius,” he says instead. “When he was
at Rikers, he fixed all the gadgets that the jail repair people
couldn’t do anything with. He saved hundreds of thousands for New York
City. The director was sorry to see him go.”
Darnay describes himself as “a libertarian,” maybe
a slightly rightish Abbie Hoffman, with a master’s in marketing and an
interest in “psychological motivation techniques,” which he used when
he worked in TV producing some years ago.
“But what about Goetz and Steinberg?” I ask.
“Goetz represents the eccentric genius that we no
longer have room for,” Hoffman explains, pushing back in his chair and
involuntarily stretching his tan suspenders over his slightly seedy
white shirt. “Nobody in the legal profession would stand up for him.
And he was only saying what a lot of white ethnic New Yorkers were
feeling: ‘The only way to save 14th Street is to get rid of all the
spics and niggers!’ You don’t have to agree, but he represents the
losing half of a changing racial power struggle. Look at how the
Daily News’s readership has metamorphosed.
“Joel is your grandmother,” he continues. “If you
let him be demonized and receive an unfair trial and distorted
coverage, as happened, your relatives are next. There was a hierarchy
of violence in the Steinberg household, with Joel whaling on Hedda,
and perhaps Hedda whaling on Lisa, who she feared might have been
replacing her in Joel’s affections.
“What if it happened this way that night: Hedda
kept her cosmetics on a shelf in the bathroom where Lisa couldn’t get
into them, though she kept trying; the little girl climbs up on a
chair to ‘make herself up’ and thus charm her daddy into letting her
accompany him to dinner; Hedda discovers her, goes into a rage, grabs
her by the arm, and whiplashes her into a wall . . . That would
account for the ‘shearing’ effect, and the fatal injury.”
Then Hoffman, a philosopher of show trials, shifts
to another of his obsessions. He’s one of those who believe Patsy
Ramsey is the guilty party in her daughter JonBenet’s murder. “She had
a cocktail of motives—she’s depressed because she’s a former beauty
queen herself, turning 40, with a husband who’s losing interest, and
her beautiful child won’t do as she asks and let her relive her own
triumphs vicariously. She snaps. Her husband, John, is rich and
powerful and hires the best politically connected law firm in
Colorado. And she out-O.J.’s O.J. by not even going to trial.”
Hoffman found this so outrageous it inspired him to
become an ad hoc “prosecutor” for a while, working on a First
Amendment suit the Ramsey’s nanny brought against the Ramseys and a
libel suit brought by a journalist the Ramseys had said was a suspect.
He also helped evolve a persuasive handwriting-analysis argument that
matched the mother’s written phrasings and letter formations with
those of the writer of the Ramsey “ransom note.”
The Ramseys were the opposites of clients like
Bernie, Joel, and Sidney Barrows; the press accepted their status. His
people, he points out, are from the wrong side of the TV monitor.
They’re not chic. You won’t see them airing their views to Morley
Safer or Charlie Rose, or lunching at the Fountain Room.
Hoffman curls his lip slightly. He prefers the
homelier conversation of Julie Carter, his pretty intern from England,
who used to work for the late ACLU activist Jeremiah Gutman; or Barry
Z, a cable-TV oddity who claims he has 2 million combined viewers from
his shows on Time Warner, BCAT, RCN, and MNN. (Hoffman promised Barry
an “exclusive” with Steinberg. “I’m a gift from God,” Barry says. “I
will get his message out unmessed with, do ya know what I mean? I’m
here to help, not hurt my subjects.")
Okay. Darnay Hoffman’s court of Miracles often
gathers at the Arte Cafe, on 73rd off Columbus, in the warm weather,
an Upper West Side Via Veneto scene with cheap spaghetti and latte and
Darnay expounding on the Steinberg case: “Joel and Hedda were a couple
of round-heeled rubes, no matter how wicked and sophisticated they
thought they were being with their ‘S&M’ lifestyle. They’re from
conventional Jewish backgrounds, him from Yonkers, her from Washington
Heights, and like a lot of people from the seventies generation, they
both thought there’d been some total break with the past. Through
Rolfing, vegetarianism, mind dynamics, rock and roll, sex and drugs,
they were going to remake themselves into sentient beings. Hedda had
been around more, believe it or not; she wasn’t bad-looking before the
title fights started. After the all-night crack-pipe sessions, the
porn and brutal sex, everything escalated. Were they involved with a
group-sex Story of O suburban clique he often alluded to as a ‘cult’?
Maybe. Or maybe it was just fantasy. They were certainly feeding each
other’s dreams, and Hedda, the supposed slave, might have been
‘topping from the bottom,’ as S&M devotees put it—that means it was
her who really controlled his actions: ‘Once you’ve had a taste of the
stick,’ she infamously said at one point, ‘you can’t go back.’ ”
“So you’re giving Joel a pass?” I ask.
“A man can be factually guilty but legally innocent,”
“Then who was ultimately guilty?” Hoffman, the
psychological marketing student, implies it was the media, for trying
to simplify human behavior.
Joel Steinberg lives on the third floor of the
Castle, with three other men. He hasn’t left the premises, except to
go for a supervised car ride around upper Manhattan, since the great
homecoming scene on June 30. He’s concerned about his safety once he’s
actually in the street—“A lot of people hate my guts,” he told me. He
likes the Fortune Society, he said—“It’s very nice, very modernlike,
everything first-class. They’re treating me well and feeding me good.
I’m in no hurry to move.”
I asked how he found his fellow ex-cons: “Good!
Nice. One guy actually said he was glad to meet me, do you believe
that? A piece of shit like me . . . ”
When I asked if coming back to New York had made
him feel the death of Lisa, and the perpetual beating of Hedda, more
keenly than in prison, he abruptly switched gears: “It’s not where I
want to go. Of course, I’m sorry my daughter’s dead. But the medical
reports showed no ‘present’ or ‘historical’ fractures or wounds. That
means no history of abuse. Got it? This was from the medical officers
at the University of Pennsylvania. The D.A. was trying for a very
negative report, but they were honest. Do you hear? See if you can do
better than those other morons do . . . ” Pathology reports from St.
Vincent’s doctors showed “a map of pain,” as Joyce Johnson put it in
What Lisa Knew, her superb book about the Steinberg case. Dr.
Margaret McHugh, head of the Child Protection Team at Bellevue, who
testified for the prosecution after examining all medical reports,
told me: “He and his lawyers are just focusing on the parts [of the
reports] that exonerate them. If it says ‘no fracture,’ they use that;
if it says ‘hypodensity is present involving cortex and subadjacent
white matter in the left frontal lobe,’ brain swelling, they leave it
I’d heard Steinberg had done a “good” seventeen
years, as opposed to Robert Chambers, the Preppie Killer, with whom
Steinberg, Bernie Goetz, and John Gotti (!) had been confined at
Rikers’ infirmary (“the Page-One Wing”) back in the eighties. I asked
how he’d done it.
“Ever been in jail?” he snorted. “If you had, you’d
know there isn’t any good time. You’re just thinking of getting out.
It beats at you, and unless you’re nuts, you’re always afraid they’ll
forget to open the door some day. What I did was work. When they were
building the law library at the Southport facility in Elmira, I
volunteered to help, because of my background. I worked seven days a
week. I was always open for business. And some of those hard rocks
were grateful . . . You know they don’t like ‘short eyes,’ guys
accused of child abuse. Work. That was it . . . Plus, I couldn’t go
sailing, could I?”
Steinberg’s stay at the Fortune Society may last
into September. “Whadda I do?” he chuckled. “I decompress. I get that
weight off my shoulders. I talk to the guys in here, who are having
the same feelings as me . . . I think about my next moves.”
One of these is the possibility of a job as a host
on New York Confidential, a public cable-TV show where Darnay
Hoffman happens to be the attorney of record, which could start in the
fall with Steinberg “learning the ropes” as an intern; it could also
mean, Steinberg says, some work as a paralegal: “I’m a good lawyer,
disbarred or not, and it would be wrong to throw all of that
experience away . . . And some day, I hope to practice again.”
I ask Steinberg about the wisdom of being on T.V.
if he’s as worried about people hating his guts as he’s indicated he
is: “Fortunately,” he says, “they can’t get you through the ether, can
During our conversation, Steinberg’s voice had a
spent-force quality. He made an effort to be charming, falling into
the neighborhood street rhythms and idioms that men of blue-collar
backgrounds of our age share: “I hear ya did some crime reporting,” he
offered heartily. “I defended quite a few goombahs in my time. They
put me in the wagon [from Rikers to 100 Centre Street] with John Gotti.
He didn’t say anything. Wouldn’t even meet my eyes. I told Darnay to
get word to him that I’d worked for the Family.”
“You never can tell what the prosecutors had in
mind when they matched them in the same vehicle,” Hoffman commented
later. “You’re suggesting they wanted Gotti to have Joel offed in
prison?” I asked him. Darnay shrugged.
When he learned I’d once worked for the Herald
Tribune in Paris, Steinberg told me about a noblewoman he’d had an
affair with in France, and said that as a young, sports-car-driving
roué, he’d cut the female population of Manhattan down like “wheat
before the sickle,” a generational joke I hadn’t heard for a while.
But the rest of the session was spent on his
military career, something he’s quite proud of, and which the press
has “totally ignored.”
“You know, Joel, I looked at your letters of
discharge and commendation from former officers, and didn’t see any
mention of the Phoenix Program or ‘the Company,’ which Darnay told me
you’d had something to do with.”
“You have to look for code words and suggestions,”
Steinberg scoffed. “They don’t come right out and say, ‘Lieutenant
Steinberg helped with secret bombing information.’ That’s not how they
“Well, can you give me some examples of codes, so
that I can see what you mean?”
“Your mind jumps from the general to the
particular,” he told me reprovingly. “You suggest a lot more than you
say. It’s hard for a person with a very organized, linear, legalistic
way of thinking to keep up with you . . . ”
I apologized for my mind, but pressed on. “Why
would the major feel he had to encode an ordinary commendation with
secret references?” I insisted, then read him the passage from his
“Read more,” Steinberg said, and stopped me when I
got to “Lieutenant Steinberg developed an exceptional capability for
personnel and facility management and supervision [that reflected] a
high degree of clear thinking and decisive planning.”
“Now, if you can’t see that, it’s because you don’t
want to,” he said. “You’re not being serious.”
And so our first session ended.
Our second talk was another story: “Did you ever
read the Maury Terry interview in Vanity Fair? Or that bullshit
book by Joyce Johnson?” Steinberg demanded. “That’s the kind of crap I
always get from the press! They want me under the radar, but none of
them will move their asses to get things right! I’m tired of this . .
“Johnson . . . She told me she was just doing a
quickie, a fast book for money. She didn’t have to break her ass doing
deep research. She characterized me as a ‘supply sergeant’ in the Air
Force who was ‘delusional’ about my duties! I’ll tell ya who’s
delusional! She came up [in the writing business] in a strange way.
Didja ever read Kerouac’s On the Road? Do you remember him
banging a piece of shit in the back seat of a car on one of his trips?
That was her. Yeah. Fucked and abandoned by Jack Kerouac! I’m above
all this. A schlock, hack book! She knew her statements were untrue
and inaccurate! Didn’t give a shit! Used me up and spit me out . . .
“Do you know what seventeen years means? I
went from middle-aged millionaire to penniless old bum! I can’t even
afford a subscription to Cruising World, which is not about
what you might think . . . It’s about sailing. I like to look at the
pictures. I used to take my daughter and even Hedda out [on Long
Island Sound], for the peace and fresh air. That rhythm of the water.
We had some good times, everybody forgets . . .
“Steinberg the monster! Nobody bothered to find
“Well, what happened that night, Joel?” I asked. He
quickly got angry.
“How do I know what happened? I wasn’t even there!
Are you taking notes? . . . Have you read up on this? About as
prepared as Sara Wallace at ABC, aren’t ya?” I thought that since we
were in so deep, I’d go for broke: “You know that U. of P. medical
report ordered by the D.A. but used by the defense, Joel? Where it
cites all the ‘no fracture’ data and no evidence of long-term abuse?
There seems to be plenty of evidence in the first part of the report
that indicates massive head injury. What exactly do you think about
the nature of the blows that finally killed Lisa?”
I couldn’t see him, but I could feel his outrage
through the phone. He roared into it: “If a man my size, with a fist
as big as mine, hit you in the forehead, you’d hit the floor and have
a mark you’d remember. If I hit a little girl that way, the bruise
would have been bigger than her head! I repeat, there were no present
or historical bruises or fractures on Lisa Steinberg! She showed no
signs of sustained abuse. What about the people at school, her friends
on West 10th Street? How come nobody saw nothin’?”
I ask another question: “Why didn’t you or Nussbaum
call the ambulance before the next morning? At this point, you’re
still saying you just thought she had an upset tummy?”
He suddenly calmed down. He sighed: “If you read
the defense summation, you’ll see that we thought she’d be all right.
We hoped she would. As soon as we saw that she wasn’t breathing right,
we called the ambulance. What would anyone else have done? I was a
good father . . . ”
Brinkmanship had seemed to pass as a reaction, or
tactic by the time of our last session. He began by noting our recent
contretemps, but briskly brushed it off. He told me he thought we
“have a lot in common,” two bright guys from the nabe who’d gone to
school and “accomplished something,” and that we had the “same humor”—fatalistic,
“pumpernickel on rye”—he joked, and added that I seemed “kind” beneath
a raffish exterior, and wanted to “help people” in my work. Just like
him. He reminded me that as a lawyer, friend, and lover, he’d been
“evolving” toward a kind of gestalt position, trying to solve people’s
problems in their totality, and that got misconstrued by the
monolithic media liars and simplified, as Hoffman pointed out, into a
monstrous totalitarianism, practiced against Hedda, Lisa, and anyone
else who bugged him. He says that Hedda, for example, had told the
cops she’d been responsible for whatever went on in 3W when they were
“Then she gets with Barry Scheck [her chief defense
counsel], and spends 2,000 hours being debriefed by the D.A.’s office,
and she changes her story and says I did it, I struck Lisa because she
was staring at me or something. And everybody buys it, because of
Hedda’s condition. And—this was the worst—no notes! They kept no
notes, so our side had no discovery options. Did the press pick up on
this? You bet your ass they didn’t . . . Fair shot, right?”
Finally, Steinberg admitted that he’d “pushed” his
daughter a little, “with the soft pad, you know, on your palm?,” but
again denied hitting her. Did that deserve a Manslaughter 1 conviction?
Seventeen years in two of the toughest slams the prison system boasts?
Steinberg was being pressured by other parolees at
the Fortune Society to get off the phone:
“Yeah, yeah, my friend,” he told a man with a
Puerto Rican accent. “Look, I’ve gotta go now. But remember this: I’m
past my days of regressive-ism. I can’t do things I used to do. I’m
shut down, shut up, and shut-in, buddy.” He finally sounded regretful.
The lawyer of last resort had several long
telephone talks with me after the reporting of this story officially
ended. He was naturally worried that I was going to smear him, and I
was concerned that he was the Prince of Expedience, and that some of
the things we’d discussed might be high-level spinning, masquerading
as populist high-mindedness. But to what end?
“Nobody would help Bernie, after he lost with [Barry]
Slotnick in the criminal courts. Nobody wanted to go with Joel last
June, but he couldn't have left prison without an escort like me. And
who would have married Sydney?” he asked.
“You’re joking,” I said.
“I’m joking,” he agreed.
“What do you like to do most in the world, Darnay?”
I asked him.
“Talk,” he said. “Analyze things. I like to sit
around talking at a high level . . . ”
“And how do you feel about what Joel and Hedda did
He didn’t answer.
And I remembered a line he’d used when I first met
him: “Do you know the one about fooling some of the people most of the
time, and most of the people . . . ”
“Yeah?” I said.
“My motto is, ‘All of the people, all of the time.’
Hedda Nussbaum (born
circa 1942) is an American woman whose adopted daughter Lisa died of
physical abuse in 1987, sparking a lengthy and controversial trial
and media frenzy. The legal case was one of the first to be
televised "gavel to gavel.
Supporters characterized Nussbaum as a victim of horrific domestic
abuse at the hands of her common-law husband, Joel Steinberg.
Critics suggested she was a consensual partner in a sado-masochistic
relationship and an unprosecuted conspirator in her daughter's death.
Before meeting Joel Steinberg in 1975, Nussbaum had been an editor
and author of children's books at Random House publishers. Steinberg
was a defense attorney who sometimes handled adoption cases.
Beginning in 1976, Nussbaum and Steinberg lived in a brownstone
apartment in New York City's Greenwich Village. Her 1977 book,
Plants Do Amazing Things, was dedicated, in part, "to Joel, my
Due to bruises and other injuries, friends and colleagues suspected
that Nussbaum was the victim of domestic violence. Neighbors later
stated to police they believed that Nussbaum and Steinberg were
active participants in a "some kind of a sexual sadomasochistic game."
Friends occasionally offered to help if Nussbaum was being abused,
but she declined their offers of intervention or aid and refused to
implicate Steinberg. After extended absences from work, Random House
put Nussbaum on consulting editor status in 1982.
In 1981, under dubious legal circumstances, Nussbaum and Steinberg
took custody of a two-year-old girl they named Lisa. The girl's birth
mother had paid Steinberg a $500.00 legal fee to place the child with
a Roman Catholic family; both Steinberg and Nussbaum were Jewish.
Under similar circumstances, Nussbaum and Steinberg later took in a
toddler they named Mitchell. Nussbaum and Steinberg never legally
adopted either child.
In her 2005 book Surviving
Intimate Terrorism, Nussbaum's argued that her denial of the
danger she and her children lived in was typical of some chronically
maltreated persons. Nussbaum claimed that she fled from the home six
times, only to later return. In her 2005 book, Nussbaum also mentions
the medical theory that trauma, especially prolonged trauma, can
elicit the body's production of opoids that produce mental and
physical numbness. She suggests that this "numbness" further reduced
her ability to think and act clearly, akin to "Stockholm Syndrome",a
mental state wherein victims identify with their abusers.
Lisa's death and subsequent trial
According to initial police reports, on November 1, 1987 around 7:00
p.m., Steinberg rendered Lisa unconscious with a severe blow to the
head. Nussbaum remained alone with the dying child for roughly ten
hours, failing to notify police or medical personnel. Steinberg
departed and returned several times, sometimes freebasing cocaine.
According to initial police reports, Nussbaum didn't notify
authorities because she believed Steinberg had supernatural healing
powers. At roughly 6.00 a.m. the next morning, Lisa stopped
breathing. Shortly thereafter, Steinberg telephoned 911 at
After Lisa's death, Mitchell
was discovered in squalid conditions. The child's birth mother, Nicole
Smiegel, had waived her parental rights. However, since a legal
adoption had never occurred, Smiegel was ultimately granted custody of
When authorities learned of Lisa's death, they
initially charged both Nussbaum and Steinberg. In the course of the
investigation, however, charges were later dropped against Nussbaum.
She agreed to testify against Steinberg, and medical examination
revealed that Nussbaum was anemic, malnourished, and suffering from
broken bones and chronic infections. With these findings, authorities
determined that Nussbaum was physically incapable of seriously
Nussbaum's courtroom testimony
against Steinberg earned substantial media attention, due in part to
her face showing obvious evidence of physical trauma. There were also
indications, as Nussbaum testified in court, that her daughter had
been sexually abused by people outside of her immediate family. During
the trial, medical experts testified that while Lisa's injuries were
severe, she would have almost certainly survived if given prompt
Steinberg was convicted on charges of second-degree
manslaughter. After serving 16 years at the Southport Correctional
Facility in Pine City, New York, he was released in 2004.
In the years following Lisa's death, Nussbaum worked to rebuild her
life and had numerous reconstructive plastic surgeries. She also co-facilitated
a support group for battered women for about eight years and later
worked as a paralegal for an organization that assists battered women.
In 1995, Nussbaum began giving lectures about abuse at colleges and
shelters. When Steinberg was released from prison, however, she
receded from public attention until the publication of her book a year
and a half later.
According to D. Kelly Weisberg, the Nussbaum case polarized feminist
scholars and activists. Some saw Nussbaum as an archetypal victim of
domestic violence whose actions were controlled and restricted not
only by her abusive husband, but also by the culture at large that
denies the seriousness or abuse in the home. Other leading feminists—notably
Susan Brownmiller -- suggested that while Nussbaum suffered violence
from her husband, she may also have shared full culpability for
Interview With Hedda Nussbaum
Larry King Live/June 16, 2003
LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight,
exclusive: Hedda Nussbaum. Sixteen years ago in the crime that shocked
America, her husband Joel killed their only daughter and brutally beat
her, turning her into a grotesque symbol of domestic violence. And
next year he gets out of jail, and now Hedda Nussbaum speaks out next
on LARRY KING LIVE.
Good evening. Welcome to a very special edition of
LARRY KING LIVE tonight. Our guest is Hedda Nussbaum. Hedda Nussbaum
is the woman whose battered face became a national symbol of domestic
abuse. On the morning of November 2, 1987, New York City police
responded to a 911 call from Hedda. Entering the Greenwich Village
apartment that Hedda shared with her common-law husband, wealthy
attorney Joel Steinberg, police found the couple's illegally adopted
daughter, Lisa, beaten and unconscious. Hedda and Joel were arrested.
Six-year-old Lisa died on November 5. Prosecutors eventually dropped
the charges against Hedda. Joel was charged with second-degree murder
and first- degree manslaughter, convicted of manslaughter in 1988
after a televised trial that included seven days of chilling testimony
from Hedda. Joel was given a sentence of 8-and-a-third to 25 years,
and is due to be released from prison in June of next year.
And all of this, it seems like yesterday, but it
does go back to 1987, these events now approaching 16 years ago.
Before we tell the whole story, were you surprised that he only got
NUSSBAUM: I was -- not really. I was relieved that
they convicted him of something because it took the jury, I think, six
or seven days of deliberation. And apparently, they -- a lot of the
jurors were thinking that I had done it. And I was glad that he got...
KING: That's what the defense tried to do, right?
NUSSBAUM: The defense tried to say that I...
KING: That you were (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
NUSSBAUM: ... that was the culprit, yes. KING:
Let's go back. Where did you meet Joel?
NUSSBAUM: I met him at a party in New York City. We
-- I was looking to go to -- to join a half share in the Hamptons,
where singles go, and...
KING: What were you doing at the time?
NUSSBAUM: ... he was at the party. What was I doing
at the time?
KING: For a living.
NUSSBAUM: I had just started as an associate editor
at Random House, in children's books.
KING: And Joel was a practicing attorney?
NUSSBAUM: He was a practicing attorney.
KING: And the romance developed there, from that...
NUSSBAUM: The romance developed pretty quickly, yes.
KING: You liked each other right away?
NUSSBAUM: We liked each other right away. I dated
him for maybe two months and broke it off because I thought he was
pushing me to date him, see him almost every night. When I would say I
had something else to do, he would always convince me to change my
mind. And I felt it was my fault, not his, that I was too easily
KING: He was a control freak, in other words.
NUSSBAUM: Well, he was, but I didn't see it that
way. I thought it was because of me, that I was too easily persuaded,
and broke it off with him because I felt that he brought that out in
KING: Why did you get back together?
NUSSBAUM: Well, I did join that house in the
Hamptons. And one day, he showed up. And for a lot of reasons...
KING: One thing led to another.
NUSSBAUM: ... we ended up going out that night to
dinner, and then he drove me back to the city, and I was in love.
KING: And he was in love.
NUSSBAUM: And he was in love, apparently.
KING: Why -- now, I'm saying this because I
culturally come from the same area. Why didn't the Nussbaums marry?
NUSSBAUM: Why didn't... KING: Why didn't you get
NUSSBAUM: I would have loved to get married, only
he didn't want to.
NUSSBAUM: He said when two people are committed,
you don't need that piece of paper. And even though I really wanted
marriage, I allowed him to convince me of it and I went along with him,
just as I went along with a lot of things that he wanted that I didn't.
KING: Were your parents living?
NUSSBAUM: My parents were living then, yes.
KING: Did they like him?
NUSSBAUM: They loved him. They thought he was
KING: How about his parents?
NUSSBAUM: His mother was a live then.
KING: Did she like you? You get along with her?
NUSSBAUM: Yes. Yes. Everything...
KING: So you settle into a Greenwich Village
apartment? That's where you lived?
NUSSBAUM: That's where he lived, and I moved in
KING: All right. And you then continued to work at
Random House, and he practiced law.
KING: Now, how did Lisa come into the picture? Was
there abuse before Lisa?
NUSSBAUM: There was abuse. There wasn't any abuse
for three years. Nothing physical, anyway.
KING: It was happy for three years?
NUSSBAUM: Well, for three years, what he was doing
-- I was very, very shy at that time. And he started building me up,
helping me to come out of my shell, which I liked. I thought it was
terrific. Almost every night, he would work with me almost like a
therapist. And it started to actually work, so I thought he was
terrific. I started coming out of the wallpaper. Also, when we'd go to
parties, which was frequent, he would critique me afterwards. And he'd
say, You should have said this, You should have done that. And as I
said, it really started to work, so I thought he was the greatest.
KING: He was a social person.
NUSSBAUM: Yes, he was. And I was very shy.
KING: And he was successful.
NUSSBAUM: And he was successful as a lawyer.
KING: Did he also use -- this came up at the trial.
Did he use cocaine?
NUSSBAUM: Not at that time. At that time, he
wouldn't even take an aspirin. He said, I won't put any foreign
substance into my body. But over time, he started representing drug
clients, and eventually, the drug use started.
KING: The abuse of you, though -- nothing for three
NUSSBAUM: Nothing for three years.
KING: Now, how does Lisa come into the picture? Why
-- she was never legally adopted, right?
NUSSBAUM: The adoption was never completed, so...
KING: Why not? Why didn't you go through -- first
of all, why didn't you have children?
NUSSBAUM: Well, we tried.
NUSSBAUM: And I just wasn't conceiving. We both
really wanted children very much. I went through all the tests. The
first test they always do on the man because that's the simplest. And
then I went through all the other tests. They never found anything
KING: But you just...
NUSSBAUM: But since Joel did...
KING: Could it have been stress?
NUSSBAUM: I don't know. Well, today, I think it was
him because eventually, they discovered he had a low sperm count --
years later, but...
KING: Right. Now, how does -- how do you -- you
mean you adopted Lisa but never -- explain what happened.
NUSSBAUM: OK. What happened was that in his legal
practice, Joel sometimes did some private adoptions. And so through
that means, when he learned of a child that seemed appropriate, he met
with Lisa's birth mother before Lisa was born and told her that he was
going to find a home for the child. She did not know that it was going
to be him. And apparently...
KING: You knew all this.
NUSSBAUM: I knew that he'd met with her, but he
told me she said she didn't care if the couple was married or not, she
didn't care what religion they were. That's not what she said later.
She said she wanted only a Catholic family, and she wanted a married
couple. But I didn't know that.
KING: So did he bring home a baby to you and say,
This is our baby?
NUSSBAUM: Well, I -- we were -- we knew that the
baby was going to be born, and we -- a day after she was born, she was
brought to our house by one of the doctors.
KING: But did you know that he didn't tell the
birth mother that you two would be the parents?
NUSSBAUM: I -- yes, I knew that.
KING: So you knew that this was not a legal
NUSSBAUM: Well, I wanted it to be legal.
KING: Did he do all the papers and everything?
NUSSBAUM: He did not do all the papers. First thing,
you need a consent agreement.
NUSSBAUM: And he said that she wasn't sure if she
wanted the father's name on the birth certificate and so I was...
KING: He conned you.
NUSSBAUM: He conned me. And I was trying to reword
the agreement, and so on. But as time went on, as years started to
pass, I was afraid -- I mean, he -- keeping this child...
KING: You found out that you didn't have Lisa.
NUSSBAUM: Well, I knew that we had never made it
official. Yes. I knew that.
KING: OK. We'll be right back with
Hedda Nussbaum and more of this tragic story. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - 1988)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Accused child murderer Joel
Steinberg heard testimony from former love Hedda Nussbaum which for
the first time directly linked him to violence against 6-year-old Lisa
Steinberg the night she fell into a coma.
NUSSBAUM: One thing he said was -- about Lisa, I
knocked her down, and she didn't want to get up again. This staring
business had gotten to be too much for her.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nussbaum said Steinberg believed
she and Lisa often hypnotized people by staring at them. He complained
about it that night, while allegedly free-basing cocaine.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hedda Nussbaum resumed her
testimony, describing how in the months before 6-year-old Lisa
Steinberg died, she saw her lover, Joel Steinberg, strike the child.
NUSSBAUM: Joel grabbed Lisa by the arms and
shoulders, shook her, threw her down on the floor. When she got up, he
grabbed her, shook her again and threw her down. And that happened at
least two or three times.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She told how Joel Steinberg
ordered her to dress Lisa in long-sleeved clothes to cover up bruises.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: All right, we're back. Now Hedda and Joel
Nussbaum have little Lisa.
NUSSBAUM: Joel Steinberg.
KING: Joel -- oh, that's -- his name was Steinberg.
NUSSBAUM: His name was Steinberg.
KING: You never changed your name.
NUSSBAUM: I'm Nussbaum. No, I never did.
KING: OK. Now you're raising Lisa, right?
KING: Is that going well?
NUSSBAUM: That was going wonderfully. She was a
marvelous baby, a bright child.
KING: And you loved being a mother.
NUSSBAUM: I loved being a mother. I adored being a
mother. I had waited so long and thought I would never have a child.
So even the nastiest tasks, like, you know, changing diapers and...
KING: You liked it all.
NUSSBAUM: ... heating bottles -- I adored it. I
loved it. KING: And what kind of father was Joel?
NUSSBAUM: Well, when Lisa was a baby, he didn't
seem very interested. But as she started getting older, he became a
really doting father. She used to sit on his lap when they watched TV
at night. She -- he used to take her -- as she started getting older,
when she was 5 and 6, he used to take her with him to business lunches
or business dinner when she was in school during the day.
KING: Did you ever hear during this period of time
from the birth mother or...
KING: OK. So it's -- is it -- and he was good to
you? I mean, would you say, at this point, she's 5 years old, this was
a normal, happy home?
NUSSBAUM: Not at this point, no. He started -- the
first time he ever hit me was three years after we were together. That
KING: Before Lisa.
NUSSBAUM: Before Lisa. But at that point, it was --
the first time he ever hit me, I was shocked and he seemed shocked. He
took me in his arms. I thought it was a fluke. I thought he was so
terrific. He'd been helping me so much. I gave him credit for all the
raises and promotions I was getting at Random House because he kept
pushing me into them, even though I realized they never would have...
KING: So you let that go by.
NUSSBAUM: So I figured -- the way I think of it now
is I put it in a drawer in the back of my mind and closed the drawer.
NUSSBAUM: And at that point...
KING: With the other (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
NUSSBAUM: ... the assaults were very occasional.
Maybe another one was six months later or so.
KING: Did any occur while Lisa was growing up?
NUSSBAUM: Yes. They -- as the years...
KING: And you dismissed every one of them?
NUSSBAUM: As the years went on, they started
getting more frequent and worse.
KING: Why did you dismiss them? Why didn't you
leave? NUSSBAUM: I tried to leave five times -- actually, six times I
KING: And he forcibly...
NUSSBAUM: Well, the first time I tried to leave, he
came home while I was packing. And he said, What are you doing? I said,
I'm leaving. Next thing I knew, I was down on the floor with an
injured leg. He knocked me down, put me into an ice-cold bath to take
down the swelling and I think probably realized how much I hated the
cold water and started using that as what he called a "discipline." If
he didn't like something I did, he'd say, Get in the tub! And that
meant cold baths, which were horrible, I mean, to sit in ice-cold
KING: I know this is asked all the time of women
who are battered. Why didn't you just take Lisa one day and go?
NUSSBAUM: I did go five times.
KING: And he brought you back?
NUSSBAUM: And I -- no, well, either I -- I would
always run into people who didn't -- weren't close to him, didn't know
him, I didn't tell them why. I didn't want people to know I was being
battered. And they would...
KING: Couldn't they see it?
NUSSBAUM: They wouldn't -- no, at the time, they
usually couldn't. They would convince me to go back. Or I'd call him
so he wouldn't worry, and he'd talk me into coming back. And a couple
of times, I ended up at a hospital when I was in bad shape.
KING: Didn't you report him?
NUSSBAUM: I -- the first time I went to a hospital
was the first time he hit me, 1978. And I told the doctor, I said, My
boyfriend hit me. And then I realized, My goodness, he's a lawyer. And
he's this wonderful man who's helping me so much. I said, No, no.
Erase that. Cross that out. And I have a copy of that report, that
KING: That was (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
NUSSBAUM: And it has a little line through the word
"boyfriend." She did it. She crossed it out. And it was in the
hospital records for years. But in those days, no one ever -- I mean,
who knew anything about domestic violence?
KING: Why didn't you report him later?
NUSSBAUM: Because I -- I was really brainwashed. I
mean, he was -- he was...
KING: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) you were -- you were totally
NUSSBAUM: I was totally...
KING: You were whacked.
NUSSBAUM: ... brainwashed. I was. As the years went
on more and more, he convinced me he was a healer. He convinced me he
had magical powers. I mean, it really -- he was using food deprivation,
KING: You left your job, I assume.
NUSSBAUM: I was fired because...
KING: How old was Lisa at death?
NUSSBAUM: Past 6. She was almost 6-and-a-half.
KING: When did he start abusing her?
NUSSBAUM: Not until very close to the end.
KING: Why did he start hitting her?
NUSSBAUM: I don't know. I can only surmise that --
because she was getting older, and since what he -- what abusive men
want is power and control. And I guess he couldn't control her so
easily anymore because she was getting older. I don't really know what
happened or why. I never saw him hit her, by the way.
KING: What do you mean? You never...
NUSSBAUM: I didn't see him hit her.
KING: When did he hit her? When you weren't there
NUSSBAUM: Yes. Yes.
KING: You'd be in another room? I mean...
NUSSBAUM: I'd be in another room or I'd be out of
the house. I didn't see him hit her.
KING: You'd come home and you'd see her. You knew
she was hit, right?
NUSSBAUM: There were sometimes that I did realize
what must have happened, but by that point, I was just -- I was out of
KING: Did she ever tell you, Mommy, he's hitting
NUSSBAUM: No. She never did. I never talked about
it, and I guess she followed the pattern. She never talked about it.
KING: What did you think when you looked at her?
Didn't it show on her?
NUSSBAUM: Well, there was one time when it did show
on her, yes. There was...
KING: Did you...
NUSSBAUM: ... a bruise on her head, and Joel said
when she went to school, to say her brother had hit her. Her brother
at that time was a baby. And so I knew what must have happened. I had
to realize it.
KING: So she had a brother?
NUSSBAUM: She had a brother. There was another
KING: Illegally adopted?
NUSSBAUM: Well, I don't like the term "illegally
adopted." We did get a consent agreement that time, but the adoption
was never completed, obviously...
KING: Where is that boy?
NUSSBAUM: He's back with his birth mother.
KING: Did you get to know him well?
NUSSBAUM: Oh, yes. Yes, he was 16 -- I got him also
a day after he was born, and he was 16 months old at the time.
KING: Didn't you say to yourself at all -- I guess
we have to explain brainwashing, what happens.
KING: I'm in a bad marriage. I'm being -- I'm in a
bad relationship. I'm being whacked around. I worry about my daughter.
I worry about this whole thing. And now we're bringing a boy in?
NUSSBAUM: Well, I mean, from my point of view now,
you know, I say this is a horrible home to have brought a child into.
But at that point, I needed -- I was totally -- I was isolated from
everybody. He had cut me off from my family, from my friends, from my
job. I hardly ever went outside anymore.
You've probably heard of Stockholm syndrome...
NUSSBAUM: ... where somebody, you know, who is
abused reaches out, needs -- needs that comfort. And what I've
realized from working with battered women is that when there -- not
only do you reach out to the abuser, but if there's a baby, you can
hold that baby all the time. And a lot of women have told me they do.
So I used to hold this child all the time, which I was told was good
for him, too. And I think I really spoiled him because he wouldn't go
to sleep unless he was in my arms. KING: Incredible story. We'll pick
it up in a minute. You going to write a book, by the way?
NUSSBAUM: I have written a book. And one of the
reasons I'm now giving interviews is that my agent right now has the
book and is...
KING: Going to get it published.
NUSSBAUM: Trying to get it published. Yes.
KING: We'll be right back with Hedda Nussbaum and
more of this incredible tale. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - 1988)
NUSSBAUM: I was giving her artificial respiration.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was she breathing on her own?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Had she regained consciousness
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was she moving on
her own at all, ma'am?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: We're back with Hedda Nussbaum. What killed
NUSSBAUM: Well, the medical report said it was a
subdural hematoma, which -- apparently, they said she had been hit
with great force to her head.
KING: Where were you when this happened?
NUSSBAUM: I was -- I think I was in the bathroom.
KING: Were you on drugs?
NUSSBAUM: We had been doing free-base cocaine
because Joel insisted that I do it with him. That last week, because I
had such bad injuries to my leg, Joel was being the good, concerned
spouse and saying, Well, you really shouldn't do any because it's not
good for your circulation. So he was doing...
NUSSBAUM: ... by that point, he was holding a kilo
of cocaine for a client, and suddenly, the last few weeks, started
doing it all the time and really became addicted. KING: With the
little boy and Lisa in the house.
NUSSBAUM: Yes. But only at night, after they were
asleep. Normally, that was the only time we did it. But then he
started doing it all the time. He'd go into the bathroom and send Lisa
outside to play with her friends, to roller skate, and so on.
KING: Lisa would appear to the outer world a normal
child, at this point. Going to school?
KING: OK. And you are a whacked-out being possessed
NUSSBAUM: I think that's true, yes.
KING: Because you must know Lisa's being hit. Don't
you know that?
NUSSBAUM: I knew it had happened, yes.
KING: Did you fear for her?
NUSSBAUM: I -- I'm sure I did.
KING: Do you know why you were unable to run out in
the street and say, Help me?
NUSSBAUM: By that point, he had convinced me that I
couldn't survive without him. When I say brainwashed, I mean this man
was using every means in the book -- I mean, he was really diabolical.
I have sued Joel in civil court and...
KING: Since, you mean?
NUSSBAUM: Since, yes. At the hearing, we had a
Bezel Vandercoke (ph), who is a professor at Harvard Law School --
Medical School testified that when somebody is repeatedly traumatized,
that in order to protect you, your own body secretes something called
"endogenous opioids," which numb you, numb the pain, numb the terror.
But they make you numb, I was really numb by that time. I was like a
KING: Did you walk into the room and find Lisa?
NUSSBAUM: You mean...
KING: The circumstances surrounding the 911 call
NUSSBAUM: No. What happened was I was in the
bathroom, and Joel -- that night, she was supposed to go out with him
to dinner. He often took her out. And he was insisting that both of us
drink more water, so we were -- he forced us to eat hot peppers that
night so that we would drink water. And then we did drink water. And
KING: For what purpose? NUSSBAUM: Because he
thought it was healthy for us to drink water. And Lisa said, Do you
think Daddy's going to take me out tonight? And I said, Go in and ask
him. There was no reason to think that there was any -- you know, he
seemed in good humor, except for the fact that he was forcing us to
eat the peppers. And she went in, and I left the kitchen and was in
the bathroom. And he came in, and he was carrying her in his arms --
limp, like this.
KING: Was she out?
NUSSBAUM: She was out. Unconscious. And I said,
What happened? And he said, What's the difference what happened? This
is your child. Hasn't this gone far enough? He was blaming it on me.
KING: Did you see any knock on her head?
NUSSBAUM: I didn't see anything, no.
KING: She was unconscious.
NUSSBAUM: She was unconscious. And then...
KING: You were (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
NUSSBAUM: ... he went out to dinner.
KING: By himself?
NUSSBAUM: By himself, and left me with her, saying,
Don't worry. I'll get her up when I come back. And I really had -- he
had convinced me he was a healer. And I believed absolutely that he
was going to do that.
KING: So what did you do with her?
NUSSBAUM: I started giving her artificial
respiration. I started while he was there and figured he knew what
happened, if that was wrong, that he would tell me, That's not going
to help. And he showed me the proper way to give her artificial
respiration. I thought I was helping her. Of course, it had no effect.
KING: What led you to call 911?
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
NUSSBAUM: My daughter (UNINTELLIGIBLE) she's
congested, and seems to have stopped breathing. She's 6 years old.
911 OPERATOR: OK. She's having difficulty breathing?
NUSSBAUM: She's not breathing. I'm giving her mouth-to-mouth.
911 OPERATOR: OK, 6-year-old then. OK, I'm going to
connect you to the ambulance.
(END AUDIO CLIP) NUSSBAUM: That was hours later,
after he had come back and...
KING: Where is she, on the bed, lying on a bed?
NUSSBAUM: When I called 911, by that time, she was.
KING: Is she dead, at this point?
NUSSBAUM: No, she was -- it was a few days.
NUSSBAUM: She was unconscious. And I said, OK, get
her up, when he came home. And he said, No, we have to smoke first. He
wanted to smoke cocaine. So we have to be relating to each other.
Anyway, hours and hours were going by, and he's smoking this and
talking. And I keep running in to check on Lisa. And finally, I just
said, This is ridiculous, you know? And so then he followed me...
KING: Where's the little boy?
NUSSBAUM: He was sleeping.
NUSSBAUM: He was asleep. Anyway, he followed me and
brought her into bed with him. And he didn't get her up. I mean, all
he did was put his arm on her, and it seemed her breathing became more
regular, and I thought that was helping, at least. And hours went by.
And finally he said, She's stopped breathing. And I said, Should I
call 911? And I had -- I still -- after all that, I had to ask him.
And he said, No, wait. Let me try to revive her. I guess he was scared
enough that he said, Call 911. And I did.
KING: And the police come, and everybody -- the
ambulance comes first, right? They take the child. When were you...
KING: ... and Joel arrested?
NUSSBAUM: Well, the next morning, the -- first Joel
went to the hospital, and then he came back pretty quickly, which was
a surprise to me. And some police came in and -- anyway, they start
questioning us. They didn't believe the -- I think, apparently, they
didn't believe the story that Joel...
KING: What was the story?
NUSSBAUM: ... told. The story that he had told them
at the hospital, which I backed up, was that she was choking on some
vegetables and then stopped breathing.
KING: We'll take a break, be right
back with Hedda Nussbaum. Joel gets out next year. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
911 OPERATOR: Was she eating something? I'm just
trying to find out why she would have stopped breathing.
NUSSBAUM: I think -- I don't -- I don't really know
911 OPERATOR: You really don't know? OK.
NUSSBAUM: Food's coming up. She's throwing up a lot
of food, even water.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lisa Steinberg, age 6, the
illegally adopted daughter who Nussbaum and Joel Steinberg, who died
of abuse and neglect last year. The two were arrested together, but
Steinberg faces the charge of second degree murder alone. Calling her
a zombie battered beyond will, the prosecutors cleared Nussbaum and
made her their star witness. She testified that Steinberg would beat
Lisa and that she would do nothing about it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: We're back with Hedda Nussbaum. When did they
NUSSBAUM: Well, they took us into the police
station when the police came to house, and so we weren't under arrest,
they just wanted to question us. And they put me in a room by myself,
and just the way you would see it on "NYPD Blue" or something, they
left me in there for an hour, and then came back and questioned me
more, then left me alone again. But at that point, I was sure that
Lisa was going to be fine and I wouldn't tell them what happened. I
wouldn't tell them the truth. I said she had bruises, she falls a lot
roller skating. And I really believed she was going to be OK. And I
kept asking them to call the hospital to find out how she was. And I
was so surprised when they said, there was no change.
KING: You don't know what Joel was telling them.
NUSSBAUM: No, I didn't know what Joel was telling
them. I assumed he was telling them the same story.
KING: Finally, what happened?
NUSSBAUM: Finally they said, do you want to talk --
go down to the DA's office and talk to them? And I said -- or they
said, we can read you your rights. And I said, read me my rights. And
I preferred to be arrested at that point.
KING: Get a lawyer right away?
NUSSBAUM: Well, Joel had a friend of his who was a
criminal lawyer. He called him to be a lawyer for both of us. And I
went to Central Booking in Manhattan, was there a few hours and then
went to the hospital. I was really in bad shape. I could have lost my
leg or died of blood poisoning. The hospital -- the doctor testified
at Joel's trial that within 48 hours, I would have been dead.
KING: You're still not telling the police that Joel
beat you or anything? You're not telling...
NUSSBAUM: No, I was making up stories. Of course,
they knew that it was true.
KING: And when did she die?
NUSSBAUM: She died four days later.
KING: You were on bail or were you in custody?
NUSSBAUM: I was in the hospital. I was in...
KING: With her when she died?
NUSSBAUM: No, not with her.
KING: You were not with her...
NUSSBAUM: I was in the hospital getting intravenous
KING: For yourself.
NUSSBAUM: For myself. And I was handcuffed to the
bed with a 24-hour guard outside my door, which they said was for my
KING: Was this now a big story in all the news?
NUSSBAUM: It was a big story in all the news.
KING: And Joel? What happened to him?
NUSSBAUM: He went to Rikers Island.
KING: When did they decide to drop the charges
NUSSBAUM: Several months later I was -- I had
KING: To turn state's evidence.
NUSSBAUM: Well, no. I had agreed that I would talk
with the district attorney.
KING: Tell them about...
NUSSBAUM: Tell them about everything. And they
eventually dropped the charges, because they believed what I said and
they decided that I couldn't have either physically or psychologically
have committed it. KING: As soon as you learned that Lisa was dead...
KING: Why didn't you hate your boyfriend? Why
wouldn't you be willing to tell them everything that minute, that
NUSSBAUM: I did. As soon as I heard she was dead,
that day I told my attorney everything. That was Barry Scheck, and it
was the first time I really was shocked that, you know, I didn't think
I would tell anybody, but I told him everything.
KING: Did you get to see Joel at all during this
KING: He was kept in a different prison, and you
were -- he was in a different jail, and you were released?
NUSSBAUM: I was never in prison. I was in the
prison hospital, and then I was released to -- not released, but I was
put into a psychiatric ward at a hospital. Because I believed that
Joel was a better parent. I believed that he had these magical powers,
and they thought this women needs a little help.
KING: Did Joel say you did it?
NUSSBAUM: Not right then.
KING: When did he say you did it?
NUSSBAUM: There was an interview that he had given
that was in "Vanity Fair" in which he said, I don't know what happened,
I wasn't home. And I said, it looks like who was home at the time,
when -- I mean, he was home with her.
KING: What happened to the little baby? What was
the boy's name?
KING: He went back to his...
NUSSBAUM: He went back to his birth mother, and
she's never let me see him. So he's now...
KING: You don't know where he is?
NUSSBAUM: Yes, I know where he is.
KING: You could go and look at him, go to school,
NUSSBAUM: Well, I don't know exactly where he is. I
mean, I know more or less the area where he is.
KING: What stopped the brainwash? NUSSBAUM: Well, I
was in psychiatric hospital. First, I was in Columbia Presbyterian...
KING: This was before the trial.
NUSSBAUM: Before the trial. And then I went to Four
Winds (ph) Hospital. The trial was a full year later. So, what
happened was, I was talking to the district attorneys, but I still
felt from all this brainwashing that I was still in love with Joel,
and one day, something -- it finally just all came together. And I
couldn't sleep that night. I got up with this book in which I drew
pictures. It was a -- and wrote...
NUSSBAUM: Journal. I went into another room and
started drawing a picture of Joel, copy it from the newspaper.
KING: That's the picture you drew?
NUSSBAUM: That's the picture I drew. And suddenly,
all of a sudden I just saw him for who he really is. My eyes opened.
KING: And you wrote this thing: "You lousy blank,
blank. Blank, blank."
KING: "Look what you did to me. You humiliated me.
You kept me a prisoner. You beat me, all in front of our child. You
tortured her too by doing that, you sick piece of blank, blank. You're
so cheap, you deprived her of the normal pleasures of childhood."
NUSSBAUM: After -- I call this "the day my eyes
KING: Was this introduced at trial?
NUSSBAUM: I don't think this was.
KING: No? Did you read from it at trial?
NUSSBAUM: I don't think at trial I did. But I then
turned the page after I suddenly realized, I suddenly saw him for the
first time, and I wrote, "I'm sorry, Lisa. I'm sorry I didn't see. I'm
sorry. It's too late to see now, Lisa, but maybe we can help others.
Maybe we can save another child's life." And that's...
KING: Do you bear some of the guilt for Lisa's
NUSSBAUM: Well, I have come to realize that the
only reason I wasn't able to do more or to save her was because of
what Joel Steinberg had done to my head and my body, I guess.
NUSSBAUM: I know he's fully at blame for it. But
because of that day, I made a promise to Lisa and I've dedicated
myself to helping other battered women and children.
KING: Was the trial very difficult for you?
NUSSBAUM: Yes, it was difficult.
KING: You were on the stand six days.
NUSSBAUM: I was on the stand six days, and Joel was
sitting right across from me.
KING: What was it like to face him?
NUSSBAUM: What I did I didn't think that I could
really speak looking at him in the face. So the judge's bunk was very
high sitting right next to me so I moved my chair so that it would
block my view of him. So I did not look at him while I was talking.
KING: This was a televised trial.
NUSSBAUM: Yes, it was a televised trial.
KING: Did that bother you?
NUSSBAUM: No, it really didn't make any difference.
Just the idea of getting up there and knowing that a lot of people
blame me and knowing that he was sitting there. All of that would (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
KING: Why do a lot of people blame you?
NUSSBAUM: Well, because people believe that a
mother has to protect her child no matter what. And a lot of people
just don't understand what it's like to be a battered woman, unless
they've been through it.
KING: And they didn't believe brainwashing, right?
NUSSBAUM: They didn't really understand it.
KING: Even though you looked a mess.
NUSSBAUM: I know I did. And a lot of people did
understand, particularly women who had been through abuse.
I got about 200 letters from women supporting me,
telling me that I helped them. A lot of women said they left their
abusive husbands because of me, and I decided at one point to answer
every one of those letters individually. And I did. Not -- not -- not
KING: Not a form letter.
NUSSBAUM: Not a form letter.
KING: We'll be right back with Hedda Nussbaum on
this edition of LARRY KING LIVE. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nussbaum had undergone a year of
plastic surgery and psychiatric treatment. Charges against her in the
Steinberg case have been dropped. Steinberg is charged with second
Nussbaum fought hard to maintain her composure,
though it was difficult when shown a picture of Lisa.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who do you recognize it to be?
NUSSBAUM: That's Lisa Steinberg.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With respect to the first count
of the indictment, how does the defendant, Joel Steinberg, how do you
find as to murder in the second degree? Did you find the defendant
guilty or not guilty?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not guilty.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With respect to the second count
of the indictment, charging the defendant Joel Steinberg with crime of
manslaughter in the first degree, did you find the defendant guilty or
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Guilty.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: We're back with Hedda Nussbaum. Lisa would
have been 21 years old this year. And Joel gets out of June of next
year. How do you feel about that?
NUSSBAUM: Well, I don't believe that he should be
KING: He will be, though.
NUSSBAUM: He will be, because it's time off for
good behavior. He is supposed to be a model prisoner. He has shown no
remorse. Never admitted to even me, or...
KING: How do you know that? Have you talked to him?
NUSSBAUM: No. No. But I mean, every time he has
come up for parole, has is denied it.
KING: I see.
NUSSBAUM: He used to make up stories and then end
up believing them, and maybe he believes this. I don't know. KING: You
were the prime witness against him?
NUSSBAUM: Yes, I was.
KING: Do you fear for yourself when he gets out?
NUSSBAUM: I really feel that -- people have been
asking me that question for years. And I have said, it is too far in
the future, I have to live my life, I can't sit and worry about it.
But I think when it gets really close, I will have to make a safety
KING: The defense attempted to make you the culprit.
KING: Did Joel take the stand?
NUSSBAUM: No, he didn't. I believe that his
attorneys thought he would not make a good witness.
KING: Should he have gotten second degree murder?
What did you personally favor?
NUSSBAUM: I just wanted him to be convicted. I
don't think that I had any specific.
KING: How long was the jury out?
NUSSBAUM: I think six days.
KING: Did that worry you?
NUSSBAUM: Yes, it did. I thought they would be back
in a few hours. As days went by, I was really very worried because the
only reason I figured that they wouldn't convict him is because they
thought I did it. But so I was very relieved when they...
KING: Did they later do interviews, the jurors?
NUSSBAUM: They've done interviews, yes.
KING: And what have said was the reason that they
were out so long?
NUSSBAUM: Apparently some of them
did believe that it was me who had done it, but the ...
KING: The foreman.
NUSSBAUM: The foreman. Thank you. The foreman of
the jury apparently convinced them that it had to have been Joel.
KING: Not all battered women are brainwashed and
methodical prisoners of their battering, are they?
NUSSBAUM: They are not -- I think a lot of them are
brainwashed in a way in that even women who weren't physically beaten,
because the guy keeps telling them you're no good, you're this, you're
that, you can't do anything right, and they start believing it after
hearing it enough times, and that's a form of brainwashing too.
KING: Yes, it is.
NUSSBAUM: It is.
KING: So there is a lot of it.
NUSSBAUM: There is a lot of it.
KING: And when you're in it, are you desperate? I
mean, what's it like when you're in it?
NUSSBAUM: I think it's different for different
women, of course. When I was in it, I wasn't really -- well, I didn't
think of myself as a battered woman, I didn't realize what was
happening. It is very slow and gradual.
KING: It's not overnight.
NUSSBAUM: No, not overnight.
KING: We'll be back with our remaining moments with
Hedda Nussbaum. She has written all of this. We hope to see the book
published. And we'll wind things up with some other discussions about
her plight right after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NUSSBAUM: Basically I worshipped him, literally.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Nussbaum felt that
way despite numerous beatings she said she received at the hands of
Steinberg, a pattern of abuse apparently began over 10 years ago when
he hit her in the eye.
NUSSBAUM: I believe I had a black eye and then I
started seeing, like, flashes of light in front of the ye.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One beating was so severe, she
had to have her spleen removed. Nussbaum said she couldn't leave their
Greenwich Village apartment without asking for permission from
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: We're back with Hedda Nussbaum. Put some
pieces together. Was your mother -- were your parents alive during
NUSSBAUM: Yes, they were.
KING: What did they think about Joel? NUSSBAUM:
Well, at that time -- of course, they now hated him. But they had been
taken in by him, too. In fact, my mother said to me afterwards, she
said, He had me fooled. I mean, she thought he was terrific.
KING: You never thought of telling your mother what
he was doing to you?
NUSSBAUM: No, I didn't -- I did not want anyone to
know. I didn't want my parents to know. In fact, when he didn't want
me to see them, I, at that point -- I didn't want them to see me
either. Once I started having injuries -- when my nose was broken, I
didn't want them to see. I didn't want anyone to know what was
KING: Have you been able to have a loving
relationship with a man?
KING: You have such a relationship now?
NUSSBAUM: No, I don't right now. But i have.
KING: But you did.
KING: Was that difficult for you...
KING: To just go out with a man?
NUSSBAUM: No, it wasn't. In fact -- I think, I
mean, people would think that I would be very hesitant...
KING: Wary, fearful.
NUSSBAUM: ....and wary and fearful/ But I grew up
with a very good and very loving father. So I knew that and I know
that every man is not like Joel Steinberg. So, I really wanted to and
still want to have another relationship, a permanent relationship.
KING: Do you know why you think you loved him?
NUSSBAUM: Yes. Because, well -- he was very bright
and I loved listening to him talk. I mean, he just was fascinating.
NUSSBAUM: Yes, probably, yes. I just loved being
around him and enjoyed him. He was very outgoing and I was very shy
and it just...
KING: After being hit and then the apologies, right?
NUSSBAUM: He never said, I'm sorry. KING: He didn't
apologize. He never said....
NUSSBAUM: He wouldn't say those words because that
meant he was doing something wrong. He had excuses. He was trying to
help me. He was helping my mental state. He built up a whole fiction
KING: Isn't he a psychiatric case of major
NUSSBAUM: Probably so, yes.
KING: Did you know if they got him any psychiatric
help in prison?
NUSSBAUM: I don't know. I don't know.
KING: Did you attend the parole hearings?
NUSSBAUM: I could not attend the parole hearings
but -- in fact, I wasn't even allowed to talk to the parole board
except for the last two times because I was neither a victim of the
crime for which he was convicted nor was I considered a relative of
the victim because I was not...
NUSSBAUM: Or I was not her birth mother -- there
was no -- not legal birth mother.
However, in the last few years they have changed
the regulations and I did talk to representatives of the parole board
before the parole hearing. So I had my say.
KING: What prison is he in?
NUSSBAUM: Right now he is South Fort Correctional
KING: Do they move him around?
NUSSBAUM: He was at another prison before that, yes.
KING: As you look back, biggest mistake you made?
NUSSBAUM: Biggest mistake I made was going out with
Joel Steinberg in the first place.
KING: But there's no part of you said, I could have
prevented Lisa's death?
NUSSBAUM: I mean, there are times when -- I think,
I wish I had done such and such. But I understand now very clearly why
I didn't and I do give the blame to Joel Steinberg. I mean, of course,
I wish, you know, I had, you know, had run away with her, that I had
stabbed him with a knife, done anything.
KING: For awhile you blamed yourself.
NUSSBAUM: Yes, there was always a part of that,
KING: So the help you got has learned you to have
faith in yourself and to know that it wasn't you that killed her/
KING: And it was him that killed her.
KING: How do you explain him? This outgoing, bright,
successful lawyer. How do you rationalize, understand him?
NUSSBAUM: I don't think I really do. I know that
he, like other abusive men, wants power and control. That's their main
goal. Whatever excuses they give, that's what they want. And he seemed
to thrive from it. I don't know. He little by little -- he just needed
the next kick to be higher. I don't know.
KING: Hedda, I wish you nothing but the best of
NUSSBAUM: Thank you very much.
KING: Hedda Nussbaum on this edition of LARRY KING
New York Court of Appeals
The People &C., Respondent,
Joel Steinberg, A/K/A Joel Barnet Steinberg, Appellant.
79 N.Y.2d 673, 595 N.E.2d 845, 584 N.Y.S.2d 770 (1992).
June 11, 1992
1 No. 100
June 11, 1992
Defendant's appeal from a conviction
of first degree manslaughter, involving the death of six-year-old Lisa
Steinberg, centers on his contention that only a person with medical
expertise can form the requisite intent to cause serious physical
injury to a child by failing to obtain medical care. We conclude that
this contention, as well as the several others defendant advances,
lack merit, and that the Appellate Division order sustaining the
conviction should be affirmed.
In the evening of November 1, 1987,
defendant and Hedda Nussbaum were at home in their one-bedroom
Greenwich Village apartment, with their two "adopted" children, Lisa,
then six years old, and Mitchell, 16 months old. Nussbaum was in the
kitchen with Lisa while defendant dressed in the bedroom for his
dinner appointment with a friend. Lisa went into the bedroom to ask
defendant to take her with him. Moments later, defendant carried
Lisa's limp body out to Nussbaum, who was then in the bathroom, and
they laid the child on the bathroom floor. Lisa was unconscious,
having experienced blunt head trauma of great force, and her breathing
was raspy. According to Nussbaum, defendant later admitted that he had
"knocked [Lisa] down and she didn't want to get up again."
While Nussbaum attempted to revive Lisa, defendant
continued dressing. Defendant told Nussbaum to let her sleep, promised
to awaken the child upon his return, and then left for dinner.
Nussbaum did not seek medical care for Lisa because she believed
defendant had supernatural healing powers, and felt that calling for
assistance would be considered a sign of disloyalty.
Defendant returned about three hours later, at
10:00 p.m., retrieved a file relating to his oil well investments, and
left again. When he came back a few minutes later, Nussbaum urged him
to revive the still-unconscious child. Defendant declined-- explaining
that they "ha[d] to be relating when she wakes up"-- and he instead
freebased cocaine for the next several hours. Finally, at 4:00 a.m.,
after Nussbaum's repeated urgings, defendant carried Lisa from the
bathroom floor to the bedroom, where her breathing seemed to sound
better. Defendant rested his arm on Lisa, and continued talking to
At 6:00 a.m., when Nussbaum left the room,
defendant called out that Lisa had stopped breathing. Defendant
initially rejected Nussbaum's offer to call 911, but finally acceded
when his attempts to resuscitate the child failed. Police and
paramedics arrived shortly after being summoned, administered oxygen,
and rushed Lisa to the hospital.
At the hospital, defendant explained
that Lisa had gone to bed complaining of a stomach ache, and had
vomited during the night, but that he believed she was otherwise all
right until he checked on her around 6:00 a.m. and discovered that her
breathing was coarse. In fact, the doctors determined that Lisa, who
was in a coma, was suffering from severe head injuries--a result of
blunt trauma--and placed her on life support equipment. Lisa's
condition did not improve, and neurological tests performed on
November 3 indicated that she was brain dead. Life support was
discontinued on November 5.
Defendant was indicted for second degree (depraved
indifference) murder, first degree manslaughter, and seven charges
that were severed or dismissed. Defendant was acquitted of murder but
convicted of manslaughter, and the Appellate Division affirmed the
conviction. We find no error and accordingly also affirm.
First degree manslaughter requires
proof that defendant, with intent to cause serious physical injury,[n
1] caused death (Penal Law § 125.20). The People's theory,
as charged to the jury, was that defendant performed both acts of
commission (striking Lisa) and acts of omission (failure to obtain
medical care), each with intent to cause serious physical injury, and
that such acts caused Lisa's death. Defendant contends that failure to
obtain medical care for a child cannot, as a matter of law, support
the mens rea element of first degree manslaughter-- intent to cause
serious physical injury--unless defendant has medical expertise, and
would thereby know that serious injury will result from a lack of
medical attention. That contention-- which he characterizes as the
core question on this appeal--is meritless.
The Penal Law provides that criminal liability may
be based on an omission (see, Penal Law § 15.05), which is defined as
the failure to perform a legally-imposed duty (Penal Law § 15.00).
Parents have a nondelegable affirmative duty to
provide their children with adequate medical care (Matter of
Hofbauer, 47 NY2d 648, 654-655; Family Ct Act § 1012[f][i][A]).
Thus, a parent's failure to fulfill that duty can form the basis of a
homicide charge (see, People v Flayhart, 72
NY2d 737; People v Henson, 33 NY2d 63).
Although Flayhart and Henson involved
prosecutions for reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent
homicide, the failure to obtain medical care can also support a first
degree manslaughter charge, so long as there is sufficient proof of
the requisite mens rea--intent to cause serious physical injury.
The revised Penal Law, in accord with the modern
trend (see, 1 LaFave and Scott, Substantive Criminal Law § 3.5[b], at
305 ), distinguishes between "intent" and "knowledge" (see,
Penal Law §§ 15.05 , ; People v Kaplan,
76 NY2d 140). A person acts intentionally when there is a "conscious
objective" to cause the result proscribed by statute (Penal Law §
15.05; People v Gallagher, 69 NY2d 525,
529). By contrast, a person acts knowingly when there is an awareness
that a particular element of a crime is satisfied (see, Penal Law §
15.05; People v Kaplan, 76 NY2d at 144
n.3, supra). Thus, if intent is the governing mens rea (as it is here),
the focus is on the defendant's conscious aim or purpose--the
objective--in doing particular acts. Defendant's knowledge or
awareness that the result will occur--while a factor the jury make
take into consideration to infer intent--is itself not a prerequisite
Contrary to defendant's claim, even
a person without specialized medical knowledge can have the intent to
cause serious physical injury by withholding medical care. If the
objective is to cause serious physical injury, the mental culpability
element of first degree manslaughter is satisfied-- whether or not
defendant had knowledge that the omission would in fact cause serious
injury or death.
Defendant argues that "everyone" knows that failure
to supply food to a child will lead to death, and thus intentional
homicide is a proper charge under those circumstances (see, e.g.,
Zessman v State, 94 Nev 28, 573 P2d 1174;
Harrington v State, 547 SW2d 616 [Tex Crim
App]), but that the need for medical care is often a matter of opinion,
and a layperson could not be expected to know the gravity of the
situation. The distinction defendant would have us draw, as a matter
of law, between defendants who have a medical background and those who
do not, is unsupportable.
Putting aside defendant's attempt to import a
knowledge requirement into a statute that has none, and putting aside
that the mens rea for first degree manslaughter is intent to cause
serious physical injury, not death--it is plain that defendant's
argument centers on factual, not legal, distinctions. Certainly there
are situations where the need for prompt medical attention would be
obvious to anyone--a child bleeding profusely, for example, or a six-year-old
girl laying unconscious after a blunt head trauma. Thus, defendant's
argument that the failure to obtain medical care for a child may not,
as a matter of law, support a homicide charge that requires intent
must be rejected.
Having found no defect in the
prosecution's legal theory, we next consider whether the evidence is
legally sufficient to sustain the conviction. In undertaking this
review, the evidence must be viewed in a light most favorable to the
People (People v Contes, 60 NY2d 620, 621)
to determine whether there is a valid line of reasoning and
permissible inferences from which a rational jury could have found the
elements of the crime proved beyond a reasonable doubt (People
v Bleakley, 69 NY2d 490, 495). There is no need to replicate
the Appellate Division's extensive analysis of the record supporting
its conclusion that the evidence was legally sufficient (170 AD2d 50,
65-70). It is adequate for our purposes to highlight the aspects of
the case that demonstrate legal sufficiency.
There was no dispute at trial that Lisa's death was
a homicide. Even the defense expert agreed that the child's death was
caused by brain trauma as a result of abuse. The medical testimony,
including Lisa's treating physicians and the post- mortem examination,
confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt that Lisa's death was a
consequence of an assault and a failure to obtain prompt medical
The evidence was also legally sufficient to support
the jury's determination that the assault was administered by
defendant--and not Nussbaum, as the defense had argued. Nussbaum
herself testified that she did not strike Lisa that night; that
moments after Lisa went into the bedroom, defendant carried her
unconscious body out; and that defendant admitted to knocking Lisa
down. There was also evidence that defendant had physically abused
Lisa several days before her death, and that defendant's knuckles had
fresh bruises on November 2. Moreover, there was evidence of
Nussbaum's debilitated physical condition on November 1 from which a
jury could infer that she did not deliver the fatal injury. Thus,
based on the evidence, a rational jury could have concluded, beyond a
reasonable doubt, that it was defendant who caused the head trauma
that led to Lisa's death.
The evidence was also sufficient to
support the jury's determination that defendant struck Lisa and
thereafter failed to summon medical assistance, each with the intent
to cause serious physical injury. Intent may be inferred from conduct
as well as the surrounding circumstances (see,
People v Smith, 79 NY2d 309, 315; People v
Bracey, 41 NY2d 296, 301). The expert testimony described the
tremendous force necessary to inflict the head trauma that caused
Lisa's death. Moreover, after Lisa was rendered unconscious, defendant
left for dinner, and when he returned three hours later, freebased
cocaine while the child lay on the bathroom floor. Additionally, when
defendant admitted to Nussbaum during the night that he knocked Lisa
down, he explained that "the staring business had gotten to be too
much for her." This is relevant because there was evidence that
defendant was convinced that the children were staring at him to
induce hypnotic trances. Thus, the jury could have inferred from the
evidence that defendant's objective in assaulting Lisa and failing to
summon medical assistance was to cause serious physical injury,
perhaps in response to Lisa's purported staring. That defendant
acceded to Nussbaum's request to telephone 911 when Lisa stopped
breathing might demonstrate that defendant did not intend to cause the
child's death, but does not militate against the jury finding that he
intended to cause serious injury.
In sum, the evidence was sufficient to establish
the elements of first degree manslaughter.
Similarly, there is no merit in defendant's claim
that Nussbaum's testimony was insufficiently corroborated. Although
many states, and the federal courts, permit a conviction to rest
solely on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice (see,
People v Moses, 63 NY2d 299, 310-311
[Jasen, J. dissenting]), our Legislature requires that accomplice
testimony be corroborated by evidence "tending to connect the
defendant with the commission" of the crime (CPL 60.22). The
corroboration must be independent of, and may not draw its weight and
probative value from, the accomplice's testimony (People
v Moses, 63 NY2d at 306, supra; People v
Hudson, 51 NY2d 233, 238). The corroborative evidence need only
"tend to connect" the defendant to the crime; it need not establish
all the elements of the offense (CPL 60.22;
People v Hudson, 51 NY2d at 238, supra;
People v Cunningham, 48 NY2d 938, 940). Seemingly insignificant
matters may harmonize with the accomplice's narrative so as to provide
the necessary corroboration (People v Bretti,
68 NY2d 929, 930; People v Moses, 63 NY2d
at 306, supra; People v Cunningham, 48 NY2d
at 946, supra). So long as the statutory minimum is met, it is for the
jury to decide whether the corroboration satisfies them that the
accomplice is telling the truth (see, People v
Glasper, 52 NY2d 970, 971; People v Fiore,
12 NY2d 188, 201-202).
The trial judge enumerated specific
items of independent, corroborative evidence for the jury's
consideration: (i) defendant's presence at the apartment at 6:30 a.m.
on November 2, as confirmed by police and paramedics; (ii) defendant's
own statements that placed him in the apartment during the hours prior
to the 911 call, and indicated that he and Nussbaum were the only
adults in the apartment; (iii) the medical testimony indicated that
the injuries to Lisa were inflicted by a man of defendant's stature,
and that Nussbaum was so debilitated that she was physically incapable
of inflicting the injuries; (iv) hairs, forcibly removed from Lisa's
head, were found on defendant's clothing; and (v) defendant had fresh
bruises on his hand.
This evidence, if credited by the jury--as was
their prerogative--was sufficient to meet the "tending to connect"
standard of CPL 60.22(1). Thus, we reject defendant's assertions that
there was insufficient corroboration as a matter of law.
The final issue that warrants
discussion concerns defendant's claim that the trial court erred in
its response to a jury note. As one of its numerous requests during
deliberations, the jury asked for the following "clarification": "If
there was no apparent intention to cause injury, but the acts resulted
in serious physical injury nonetheless, would that be grounds to
conclude intent as spelled out by law?" Defense counsel suggested that
the court simply respond in the negative, but the trial court, to
alleviate possible juror confusion, instead chose to give a more
expansive supplemental charge.
The trial court is generally in the best position
to evaluate the jury's request, and therefore is vested with
discretion in framing an appropriate response (People
v Malloy, 55 NY2d 296, 302, cert denied 459 US 847). In all
instances, the court must "respond meaningfully" to an inquiry (People
v Almodovar, 62 NY2d 126, 131). A meaningful response may,
depending on the circumstances, include simply rereading the initial
charge (see, People v Malloy, 55 NY2d at
302, supra.) The adequacy of the trial court's response is gauged by
the form of the jury question, the particular issue of which inquiry
is made, the supplemental instruction actually given, and the
prejudice (if any) to the defendant (People v
Almodovar, 62 NY2d at 131-132, supra, quoting
People v Malloy, 55 NY2d at 302, supra).
Intent can be a difficult issue to grasp, and thus
the trial court cannot be faulted for giving a broader response than
defendant would have liked. In substance, the trial court explained
that the People had the burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt,
that defendant had a conscious objective to cause serious physical
injury; that intent is a mental operation that ordinarily must be
inferred by an examination of all the facts and circumstances; and
that the jury could infer that a person intended the natural and
probable consequences of an act.
Nothing in the court's supplemental
charge was a misstatement of the law, nor did it suggest a positive
response to the jury's question. Indeed, as the Appellate Division
noted, while a simple negative response would have informed the jury
that it could not automatically infer intent to cause the injuries
merely because the injuries occurred, such a response might have
obscured the jury's right to make a factual finding of intent based on
the natural and probable consequences of defendant's acts and the
surrounding circumstances. For these reasons, the trial court's
supplemental charge was not erroneous.
Defendant's remaining contentions, to the extent
they are preserved for our review, are without merit.
Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division
should be affirmed.
"Serious physical injury" is "physical injury which creates a
substantial risk of death, or which causes death or serious and
protracted disfigurement, protracted impairment of health or
protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ."
(Penal Law § 10.00.)
Order affirmed. Opinion by Judge
Kaye. Chief Judge Wachtler and Judges Simons, Hancock and Bellacosa
concur. Judge Titone took no part.