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Defending Joel Steinberg

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.

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Joel Steinberg after his release from prison.  

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.

“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,” Steinberg roared. “How come nobody saw nothin’?”

“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.”


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