Thursday, April 3, 2008

A MURDERER WALKS AND IT'S NOT O.J.--THE STEINBERG MURDER, OR THE DEFENSE LAWYER IS EXPENSIVE BUT WORTH EVERY PENNY

One of the greatest legal performances in history was performed by the legal team of Bob Hirsh, Michael Benchoff and Diana Lindstrom-McClure, the lawyers who represented Steven Steinberg in the Phoenix, AZ. trial for the murder of his wife Elana in 1982. In one of the most heavily publicized and notorious trials in Arizona history, those super lawyers got Steve, who admitted to stabbing his wife 26 times, an acquittal by the jury. His defense was that he was sleepwalking, something he had never done before. He had out-O.J.'d O.J., literally got away with murder and walked from the courthouse a free man.

I developed an interest in the case because I knew both Steve and Elana in Chicago. Elana lived in the Northern suburbs and went to school with Hillary. Steve lived on my street on the South Side of Chicago, and we were classmates in grade school. To paraphrase a long ago vice presidential candidate: I knew Steve Steinberg, Steve Steinberg was a friend of mine, and I'm glad I'm not Steve Steinberg.

In an extensively researched 1988 book by Shirley Frondorf called Death of a "Jewish American Princess", we learn about the dynamics of the trial. Mrs. Frondorf was a former psychiatric social worker who later became an attorney and has frequently lectured and written about the law.

Steinberg's defense was something that Hollywood would have rejected as being unrealistic--nobody would have believed it. But sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. What does a defense lawyer do when the overwhelming evidence is stacked against his client? The defense legal team devised the strategy to attack the victim. And attach the victim they did! Poor Elana needed her own attorney there, to protect her reputation. One juror, interviewed later said, "The guy shouldn't have been on trial. He should have had a medal."

If we can believe the parade of well coached defense witnesses, Elana shopped incessantly, she nagged (with a shrill voice), she withheld sex. She dominated and badgered the personable and docile Steve until he "snapped" in a fit of "temporary insanity". Steve argued that his wife was a "Jewish American Princess (JAP)" whose shopping habits drove him (temporarily) insane.

In the alternative, the defense argued that because Steve was sleepwalking, he wasn't responsible for what he did--also temporary insanity. While he was allegedly sleepwalking, he managed to walk to the other end of the house, take a carving knife from the kitchen, walk back and viciously attack his wife who was screaming and fighting for her life. The attack was so severe the knife blade was bent at the tip and blood was splattered on the walls and even the ceiling.

In testimony, Steinberg's 12 year old daughter, Traci (described by her father as a "Princess in Training") stated that she was sleeping in the next room, woke up from the commotion and opened her bedroom door prompting her father to scream (while sleepwalking, of course) "shut the f-----g door." Then he laid out 3 pairs of Elana's panties on the floor to make it look like a robbery. It amazing what a person can do while unconscious.

Steve's original alibi was that 2 bushy haired strangers held him down while they murdered Elana, and they ran out the back door and jumped over the fence. Police found no footprints in the damp grass behind the house. The murder weapon was found under the mattress with Steve's fingerprints on the blade.

Elana, petite (90 pounds), pretty and vivacious, was a stay at home mom, raising their two daughters, entertaining the Steinbergs' many friends and decorating the ranch style house as a showpiece. The fact that, by all accounts, Elana kept an immaculate house and was a wonderful mother to the two girls was turned on its head to show that she was neurotic and in effect provoked her own murder.

The family had moved from the Chicago area a year or two earlier. Steve went to work in a popular restaurant owned by Elana's brother. The restaurant started losing money because of several "burglaries" of the cash register that were not solved. (Steve, as manager, had the employees take lie detector tests on more than one occasion, which they all passed.) Steve lost his job when Elana's brother sold the restaurant, shortly before the murder. The new owners declined to employ Steve, a compulsive gambler who owed his bookie over six thousand dollars at the time of the murder. Steve's salary at the restaurant was only $700 per week.

Incidentally, if we can believe the defense (the jury did), he was driven to gamble because of Elana's shopping habits. On occasion, when he did win, he was very generous and bought Elana expensive jewelry.

Steve's lawyers hired two forensic psychiatrists who repeated for the jury whatever Steve told them, every self serving complaint he may have harbored against his murderred wife. He also told them he didn't remember committing the crime. One psychiatrist was Dr. Martin Blinder, from San Francisco, who was previously best known for the infamous "Twinkie defense" which got a murderer a reduced sentence because he committed the crime while high on sugar from Twinkies and junk food. Dr. Blinder, living up to his name, testified that the Steinberg murder was committed under a short-lived scenario of "dissociative reaction" when Steve repeatedly stabbed his wife. The defense psychiatrists were more experienced in testifying in trials and were apparently more believable than those testifying for the State. The jurors were greatly impressed by Steve's doctors who used words they could understand. I'm not sure what "dissociative reaction" means, but it sounded impressive to the jury, coming from a doctor. Actually, although it is discussed in medical journals, few, if any, doctors have ever seen a real case and many are skeptical that it really exists. Forensic psychiatry is an inexact science because, of course, only the murderer knows what he was really thinking at the time.

The prosecution also had psychiatrists, but their best one was unavailable because of a ski trip. The prosecutor didn't challenge the doctors' defense testimony, ask the right questions or call the right witnesses. For budgetary reasons or time restrictions or whatever, the State apparently failed to investigate or ask about Steve's thefts at all his previous jobs, the apparently staged thefts of Elana's car and jewelry, incessant gambling, not to mention previous shootings and kidnappings. For example, on one occasion when the Steinbergs lived in suburban Chicago, Steve reported that he had been kidnapped by "bushy haired strangers" who robbed him of Elana's jewelry. The State's investigation never got that far to pursue this information. Indeed, although the State considered prosecuting Steve after the trial for insurance fraud, the District Attorney dropped the case because it would appear to be a "sour grapes" prosecution.

The aforementioned thefts and other crimes were never solved. Until the murder, the charming Steve was just thought to be an unlucky schlamazel, but not a crook.
He was either the target of more violent crimes than anyone in history, or he staged the burglaries and robberies himself to pay off his gambling debts. Family members were later seen wearing some of the purloined jewelry.

Although he was apparently sane at the trial, the jury determined Steve to be not guilty by reason of (temporary) insanity. It was Judge Marilyn Riddel's jury instructions that sealed the deal. The Judge instructed the jury that it could find either (1) murder in the first degree (pre-meditated); (2) not guilty; or (3) not guilty by reason of insanity. Second degree murder or manslaughter was not an option given to the jury. Although there was case law for the State to contest that, the prosecutor did not do so. Because Steinberg was only temporarily insane when he murdered Elana, but at no other time in his life, he was deemed "sane" at the time of the acquittal. Thus, there was no need to send him to the mental hospital for treatment, and of course, at that point he walked away a free man.

The members of the jury, interviewed after the trial, had gotten the impression that pre-meditation had to occur for some period of time, but more than the few minutes it took for Steve to walk the 66 feet from the bedroom to the kitchen to get the carving knife and back to the bedroom. The interviews indicated that the jury accepted the fact that Steve had indeed murdered Elana and they might have issued a verdict of manslaughter if that were one of the options given.

While the term "Jewish American Princess" as used by the defense is a derogatory term for Jewish women, it made no impression on the non-Jewish prosecutor or judge, and no objection was made. Ironically, although considered an inflammatory or derogatory statement for Jewish Americans in the East or Midwest, it was not often heard or understood in Arizona. None of the jurors were Jewish, and the term meant nothing to them.

In a criminal case, the State cannot appeal a not guilty verdict--only the Defendant can (double jeopardy). As a result of the Steinberg case, Arizona changed its law regarding temporary insanity. Under today's law, the burden of proof is changed and a defendant in a similar situation would be declared "guilty but insane" (as opposed to "not guilty by reason of insanity") and required to serve a sentence at a State Hospital (mental institution) for the length of the sentence he would have otherwise served.

A miscarriage of justice occurred because the State underestimated the resourcefulness of the defense counsel who interviewed anyone who ever knew the Steinbergs and discarded those who would speak well of the victim. Steve was a friendly and likeable guy with many friends who were willing to suspend belief and stand up for him at teial.

The witnesses didn't understand the overall strategy of the defense or exactly how their individual testimony fit into the overall picture. The State did not interview Elana's friends, which were many, and did not call them to testify--which in retrospect, would have presented a more balanced portrait of the victim.

The defense had had many meetings with the potential defense witnesses, meticulously coaching them and giving them pep talks to help their friend, Steve. The defense lawyers even went to the extent of changing Steve's wardrobe, discarding his preferred silk shirts and dressing him instead in a modest suit from Sears Roebuck. The prosecution, with limited resources, was not prepared for all of this.

The prosecutor, Jeff Hotham, who later became a judge, was an experienced litigator. He had previously won all 6 capital cases that he prosecuted. In every case the defendant was represented by a public defender. He was simply outspent and overwhelmed and perhaps didn't understand where the trial was going until it wsa too late. He felt the damning evidence was so strong that it would carry the day.


In Frondorf's summary, she concluded:

Finally, looking back at the verdict, I concluded that it took luck. Everything had to be right, or everything had to be wrong, depending on your perspective, for this verdict to happen. The jury had to be just the right combination of twelve men and women. One person could have changed the outcome. I believe that a strong juror could even have turned the verdict around completely and brought in a conviction. And this verdict took a combination of other things--a psychiatrist who wanted to go skiing, friends who didn't know quite what to do...doctors who believed in Twinkie poisoning and sleepwalking, jurors who believed in Satan and...a judge and jury with totally different understandings of what it meant to "premeditate" a murder. Will it every happen again? I don't thin so--this was a once-in-a-lifetime verdict.



In a footnote to the case, after the trial, Steven Steinberg signed over custody of his 2 daughters to his in-laws, Elana's parents. The girls have not been in contact with him since that time.

KENNETH SUSKIN

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26 Comments:

Blogger Michele. said...

Hi Kenneth,

Thanks for this. I'm a prof. and one of my areas of research is the Jewish American Princess. I know Frondorf's book, but have never been able to find much of anything else written about the case. Have you? And leads would be greatly appreciated.

Michele Byers.
byersmichele@gmail.com

April 9, 2008 at 11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My mother was very close friends with Elana, and growing up hearing this story is why I went to law school, to put people like that M*F* away. I did not end up going into prosecution, though I still dream of doing so. This was one of the biggest miscarriages of justice ever to take place, in my humble opinion. That prosecutor did not do nearly enough homework.

Frondorf's book, while enlightening, could have done much more to properly portray Elana, and erase some of the negative crap that was spewed about her during the trial. Some of her quotes were also incorrect, and/or never made.

As far as more books, there haven't been any that I know of (and I've looked extensively through the years), though the case has been mentioned in a number of works ranging from Jewish murder stories to various things on the NGBI plea.

February 20, 2009 at 11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comment. Is your mother "BJ" quoted in Frondorf's book? If so, I remember you as a little girl, and your mom and dad are old friends, as were the Steinbergs.

KEN SUSKIN

February 20, 2009 at 2:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worked for a well known corporate chain restaurant in 2007-2008. Steve Steinberg was hired as the floor supervisor and right away everyone was creeped out by this old man who could barely keep up with the hustle and bustle of the biz. Guess he was desperate for work. He would make inapropriate comments, get all pissed off and start physically shaking when he could not go have a smoke. Me and all the other guys knew something strange was up with this guy. He would come out and schmooze with the customers and hand out lollypops to kids and then turn around and be a creep to the employees. Those parents had no idea their kid was taking candy from a murderer. I think its just really messed up that my safety was compromised by having to work in a restaurant with this man because the justice system failed. Be aware of any old white male restaurant managers named steve and let all you co-workers know right away whats up.

April 17, 2009 at 10:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for responding. This man created his own mess and has to live with it. Incidentally, what city do you live in?

KEN SUSKIN

April 20, 2009 at 8:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ken. (this is the commenter from above) I lived and worked with him in the San Fransisco Bay Area (south bay).

May 22, 2009 at 12:54 PM  
Anonymous Stan Crouch said...

I worked in Chicago with Steve Steinberg and his Father in Law at a pool and paito store back in the 70's. This guy had a real gambling and temper problem. He was completely shalow and all about money. The stores were eventually closed and the inventory sized by the IRS. I know for a fact that the owners were stealing from each other and I would bet, no pun intended Steinberg was in on it.

October 20, 2009 at 1:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Kenneth,

I am curious after all these years what prompted you to write this article?

January 27, 2010 at 2:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Steven Steinberg is living in San Jose now, creepy! I can't believe he got off like that and he just walks around a free man

July 26, 2010 at 11:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, just to let you know I called SJPD and Campbell PD and told them this guy was walking around loose as a goose... they said since he was aquitted there was nothing they could do. Unbelieveable!

July 26, 2010 at 11:03 PM  
Anonymous captaingary said...

This case is why I quit law school after 7 months... As an attorney, you are sworn to DEFEND (by ANY manner) this type of defendant. I could NOT in good conscience do it! The American Legal SYSTEM is a SHAM.

January 9, 2011 at 11:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worked for the firm that helped Elana's parents gain custody of the children. I also met him when he came in to sign the papers after his acquittal. Just couldn't get over how perfectly sane he appeared sitting there in his yellow polo shirt. He looked like a "free" man, but I don't see how he could ever again feel that way. I don't think any of us were ever so shocked as we were at this verdict and, after all these years, I still think of him, her and their children. Some of the other staff had occasion to be in the home they shared shortly after the murder and told me that even after the "cleanup," there were still blood spatters on the baseboard. I could have gone as well and am so glad I didn't. As I recall, it seems I heard talk that he was discussing some movie deal and I really hope that never happened. It also seems to me that I heard his defense cost somewhere around $1M. It still amazes me what money can buy. What an incredible miscarriage of justice.

May 23, 2011 at 11:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just watched Oct.4th 2011 this case on tv. wandered what ever happened to him and his children. the comment section answered those questions. thanks (it sounds like he's a bitter lonely man)

October 4, 2011 at 2:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I "believe" Steve Stienberg lived as my "roommate" in 2009. in western colorado... he was very difficult to talk to .. he became very angry at me whenever he diddnt get "his" way.. and he went by "Steve James".. Im still getting mail at my house in his name.. He was very weird. he was taking a very strong anti-depressant called seroquel..I had no ided of his past till I was watching American Justice october 2011.

October 4, 2011 at 3:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone know Steve Steinberg full name (middle initial) and his age during the time he stabbed his wife?

January 18, 2012 at 7:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Worked in outside sales in early eighties in S.J. Steinberg was a fellow rep. He was a creep, tried to ask me out. I declined. He said he was a "widower" from Ariz. A few years later I saw a magazine article and recognized him immediately. I was around 40, and I thank God for my intuition. He went on to work for his brother in S.J. and was involved in at least one more "robbery" that made the papers. I remember him having a screaming fit because he thought he was owed an extra $3 on his commission.

March 4, 2012 at 6:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worked with steve 1970 to 1974 in chicago at the garden centers also he was manager and I was the asst mgr.(ITasca store) We always had money comming up missing and I was always The one to blame.He made the owners (Bill and Barney his father-in-law) believe it was me or someone else.I wound up quiting because my father was also an employee of four seasons and he was bill's righthand man.I remember that when ever we drove from one store to another my father would not let anyone ride with him because he would fall asleep driving.My dad would follow him so he would not dose off driving. So this guy did have a sleeping problem.Elana was a friend of mine and she is missed.

May 11, 2012 at 6:18 AM  
Anonymous Sherry G. said...

I just watched a segment about this murder on the Biography channel and wondered what had become of Elana's little girls. I am relieved to read they were raised by their maternal grandparents. Any husband or wife can make their spouse out to be either the most wonderful person you would ever want to meet - or the biggest creep or shrew to live with in the world. Isn't this true of all of us? You can make a case FOR your spouse and speak for hours about all of their good qualities and you can do the reverse and make the case for what a jerk they are and list all of their bad qualities. Just about every husband in American feels his wife spends too much money, especially when she is putting together a new home. Are these good reasons for murder? This case is upsetting because all Elana did was perform the duties of wife and mother and she probably wasn't any more shrill or demanding than any other wife in America. Steve, on the other hand, was a criminal. He had repeatedly stolen at work, he had a gambling problem, and he stabbed his wife 26 times with her two little darling girls right across the hall. What a monster. Who would sit on a jury and buy this defense's case? They are the ones who let this go through as an acquittal. It really was 1st degree murder and the jury allowed themselves to be hoodwinked by a savvy defense attorney. Shame on them.

January 22, 2013 at 12:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Jodi Arias trial has brought all the memories back from the Steinberg trial. This time the Jury prevailed. Elana did not deserve to die. I always think of the fear she must of felt. How scared she was. Not knowing if Steve was going crazy and may kill the girls as well. No one deserves that! The prosecutor was no W. Martinize. Latham is why Steve walked.
My husband and I are one of the couples that Elana and Steve introduced that D. Frondorf refers to in her book. She even came and spoke with me one day. Elena and I were friends in High School. My husband was also friends with Steve for many,many years. This still haunts me to this day. © 2012 AOL Inc. All Rights Reserved
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May 11, 2013 at 12:09 PM  
Anonymous DeborahWatts2You@aol.com said...

My PSYCHO RAGING old boss, Steve Steinberg got away with stabbing his wife 26 times..to death. Temporary insanity..HA..B.S.! ASK anyone that worked with him! HE was a RAGING JERK, contrary to reports! His hooker girlfriend, even told me Steinberg was leaving his wife to live with her. Soon after Elena was DEAD! I worked for Singers, as
management. I was working for them at time of the robberies, I WAS DID NOT TESTED as this stories CLAIMS ALL EMPLOYEES WERE! I called the prosecuting attorneys office too! THEY did not care! COULD Steinberg have had control over them with COCAINE? It is not like many off Steinberg's drinking and cocaine using friends were not PROMINENT attorneys! One, I visited at the Meadows rehab., who later became a bar associate PRESIDENT!

June 9, 2013 at 6:47 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

My PSYCHO RAGING old boss, Steve Steinberg got away with stabbing his wife 26 times..to death. Temporary insanity..HA..B.S.! ASK anyone that worked with him! HE was a RAGING JERK, contrary to reports! His hooker girlfriend, even told me Steinberg was leaving his wife to live with her. Soon after Elena was DEAD! I worked for Singer's as management. I was working for them at time of the robberies, I WAS NOT TESTED as this stories, CLAIMS ALL EMPLOYEES WERE! I called the prosecuting attorneys office too! THEY did not care! COULD Steinberg have had control over them with COCAINE? It is not like many of Steinberg's drinking and cocaine using friends were not PROMINENT attorneys! One, I visited at the Meadows rehab., who later became a bar associate PRESIDENT!

June 9, 2013 at 7:02 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Steinberg did RAGE at customers as well! I wonder if he is still with Joy, the hooker that told me he was leaving his wife for her! Then soon after she was DEAD! AND THANK YOU for writing this article! JUST PROVES if you ply people with enough COCAINE and ALCOHOL he got away with PREMEDITATED MURDER!

June 9, 2013 at 7:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just saw an obit that said Steve
Steinberg died in 2010 in Gold Country (Ca). Survived by brother David and some nephew and a niece.
I hope and pray it was the same
steven Steinberg - I was the outside rep that worked with him briefly in the early 80's. I would almost bet money his wife was not his only victim!!

September 10, 2013 at 7:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nope...not dead

September 14, 2014 at 12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He's alive and well in SJ, Ca. See him around town from time to time.

November 27, 2014 at 2:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elena's daughters have moved back to the Phoenix area. One is a Prosecutor, the other a stay-at-home mom.

December 31, 2014 at 4:25 PM  

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