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New York child killer goes free

Steinberg case brought national attention to abuse issue

Joel Steinberg, pictured at his 1989 sentencing, served two-thirds of his maximum 25-year manslaughter sentence.

PINE CITY, New York (AP) -- Infamous child killer Joel Steinberg was released from prison Wednesday after 15 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 an 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 after a vicious beating in the Greenwich Village apartment where she lived with Steinberg and his former lover, Hedda Nussbaum.

Joel Steinberg was accused of beating the girl for staring at him and then ignoring her injuries. 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.

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," Hoffman said. "But he has done the time."

Nussbaum, now 59, 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, Nussbaum became a key prosecution witness after detailing how Steinberg had beaten her so badly she was unrecognizable.

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

Lisa was found 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.

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

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.

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 New York Daily News headline.

Lisa Steinberg would have turned 23 in May if she were still alive.

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."

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."

Steinberg was as docile behind bars as he was domineering while free, chalking up only a half-dozen disciplinary infractions.

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

But for Lisa, there was no prom or graduation, no wedding day.

On May 14, 2004, she would have turned 23.