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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Physical abuse
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: November 2, 1987
Date of birth: May 25, 1941
Victim profile: His "adopted" daughter Lisa. 6
Method of murder: Hitting on the head
Location: New York City, New York, USA
Status: Convicted of manslaughter. Sentenced to the maximum penalty then available for that charge — 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison in 1988. Released on June 28, 2004
photo gallery

Joel Steinberg (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

Steinberg was 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 woman's syndrome.

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).

Ironically, 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.

Meanwhile, the other child in the case ended up being adopted by his natural mother, Nicole Smigel, who then legally changed the boy's first name to Travis.


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.

In its opinion,[2] 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.

In popular culture

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 -

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.

Darnay Hoffman, 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 is.

“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 reporters.”

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 shadows.

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 prison possessions.

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,” he replies.

“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 out.”

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 they?”

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 do it.”

“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 discharge.

“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 anything out!”

“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 first arreted:

“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 to Lisa?”

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.

Early life and career

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 everyday inspiration."

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 Nussbaum's urging.

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 her son.

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 wounding Lisa.

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 medical treatment.

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.

Later life

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 Lisa's death.


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 manslaughter?

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...


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 persuaded.

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 me.

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 married?

NUSSBAUM: I would have loved to get married, only he didn't want to.

KING: Why?

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 terrific.

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 with him.

KING: All right. And you then continued to work at Random House, and he practiced law.

NUSSBAUM: Correct.

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 years.

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 wrong.

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 adoption.

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.

KING: Yes.

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.


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.




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.


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 was 1978.

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.

KING: Yes.

NUSSBAUM: And at that point...


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 did leave.

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 water...

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 medical report.


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 brainwashed.

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, sleep 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 or...


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 it already.

KING: Did she ever tell you, Mommy, he's hitting me?

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 child that...

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...

KING: Yes.

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.



NUSSBAUM: I was giving her artificial respiration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was she breathing on her own?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Had she regained consciousness at all?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was she moving on her own at all, ma'am?



KING: We're back with Hedda Nussbaum. What killed Lisa?

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 mother, right?

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 zombie.

KING: Did you walk into the room and find Lisa?

NUSSBAUM: You mean...

KING: The circumstances surrounding the 911 call were what?

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 Lisa...

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. And so...

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...


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?


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.


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 exactly why.

911 OPERATOR: You really don't know? OK.

NUSSBAUM: Food's coming up. She's throwing up a lot of food, even water.




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.


KING: We're back with Hedda Nussbaum. When did they arrest you?

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 antibiotics.

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 own protection.

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 against you?

NUSSBAUM: Several months later I was -- I had agreed...

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 second?

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 period?


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?

NUSSBAUM: Mitchell.

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, couldn't you?

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...

KING: Journal.

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 opened."

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 death?

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 a...

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.


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 degree murder.

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.




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: 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 not guilty?



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 released.

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 plan.

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.


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.



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 Steinberg.


KING: We're back with Hedda Nussbaum. Put some pieces together. Was your mother -- were your parents alive during this trial?

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 happening.

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.

KING: Mesmerizing?

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 around...

KING: Isn't he a psychiatric case of major proportions?

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...

KING: Married.

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 Facility upstate.

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, sure.

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 life.

NUSSBAUM: Thank you very much.

KING: Hedda Nussbaum on this edition of LARRY KING LIVE.


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

Decided 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 Nussbaum.

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[1]). 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[3]).

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 [1986]), distinguishes between "intent" and "knowledge" (see, Penal Law §§ 15.05 [1], [2]; 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[1]; 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[2]; 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 of intent.

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 attention.

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[1]). 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[1]; 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.


1. "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[10].)

Order affirmed. Opinion by Judge Kaye. Chief Judge Wachtler and Judges Simons, Hancock and Bellacosa concur. Judge Titone took no part.



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