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Defending Joel Steinberg

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Steinberg with Lisa in 1987 in Washington Square Park: "I was a good father," he says.  

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.”)


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