Video: Child killer goes free

updated 6/30/2004 4:05:03 PM ET 2004-06-30T20:05:03

Infamous child killer Joel Steinberg was released from prison Wednesday after nearly 17 years behind bars for the 1987 beating death of his 6-year-old adopted daughter.

The former lawyer, now 63, served two-thirds of the maximum 25-year manslaughter sentence. He has continued to deny responsibility for the girl’s death.

Steinberg left the upstate prison with $104 in earnings from his inmate account and was picked up in a limousine by defense attorney Darnay Hoffmann.

Lisa Steinberg died in November 1987, three days after a vicious beating in the Greenwich Village apartment where she lived with Steinberg and his former lover, Hedda Nussbaum.

Nussbaum called police after finding the 6-year-old naked, bruised and not breathing. Nussbaum, initially a co-defendant, herself had a split lip, broken ribs, a broken nose and a fractured jaw she said were inflicted by Steinberg.

According to Nussbaum’s testimony, Steinberg struck Lisa for staring at him, then ignored her injuries and smoked cocaine.

But according to Steinberg, he shared a unique, loving relationship with the slain girl — an assertion that led to five rejections by the parole board.

‘He has done the time’
The case drew national attention, pushing societal hot buttons for adoption fraud, child abuse and spousal abuse.

“A lot of people are not happy with the fact he’s getting out,” said Steinberg’s civil attorney, Darnay Hoffman. “But he has done the time.”

Hoffmann has said he offered Steinberg a free apartment and a $250-a-week job with a local cable television show. Steinberg will have to make regular visits to a parole officer through October 2012. Now disbarred, he worked in prison as a paralegal.

Steinberg’s former lover, Hedda Nussbaum, recently announced she would flee New York rather than face him again. She has quit her job at a domestic violence center, the Journal News reported Wednesday. Her small white house in Carmel was empty Tuesday.

Initially his co-defendant in Lisa’s death, she became a key prosecution witness after detailing how Steinberg had beaten her so badly she was unrecognizable.

After Lisa’s death, child abuse hot lines sprang up nationwide, and a poll found two out of three Americans felt child abuse cases needed more aggressive investigation.

“The whole issue was higher on people’s consciousness than it used to be,” said Dr. Kathryn Grimm, a New York-based children’s advocate since 1974.

Lisa’s birth mother, Michelle Launders, wouldn’t discuss Steinberg’s release. But she won a 1987 court fight to block Steinberg from burying the child, and ordered his name deleted from Lisa’s death certificate, which now reads simply: “Baby Girl Launders, also known as Lisa.”

Case shattered abuse stereotypes
The case defied many stereotypes about child abuse. This was a middle-class family, a lawyer and a book editor raising two children in a historic brownstone where Mark Twain once resided.

“The House of Terror,” read a Daily News headline.

Nussbaum called 911 on Nov. 2, 1987, to report her daughter had vomited after choking on food.

Lisa was naked, bruised and not breathing. Her feet were black with dirt so thick it was later scraped off. Her adopted 17-month-old brother was tethered to a nearby playpen, surrounded by his own excrement and drinking spoiled milk.

Nussbaum had a split lip, broken ribs, a broken nose and a fractured jaw, all inflicted by Steinberg.

Lisa died three days later.

The city was stunned. More than 1,000 mourners, including the late Cardinal John O’Connor, visited her tiny casket.

Lisa’s brother, Travis Smiegel, was returned to his birth mother. He will start college in the fall.

“Steinberg and Nussbaum are but a footnote in this story,” the Smiegel family said in a statement. “Let them face the darkness, and may the light of God continue to shine on this boy.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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