NY officers' trial witness has tie to 1980s saga

AP News
Posted: May 05, 2011 8:36 PM

A doctor who played a tangential role in the strange saga of convicted child-killer Joel Steinberg has turned up in another headline-grabbing case: the trial of two police officers charged with raping a woman they were called to help get home.

Dr. Mitchell Essig was there to give medical evidence for Officers Franklin Mata and Kenneth Moreno's defense. But prosecutors forced Essig to acknowledge he'd had a part _ unwittingly, he said _ in Steinberg's illegal adoption of a baby boy about 17 months before Steinberg's 6-year-old daughter was killed in an infamous 1987 case.

Essig's then-medical partner, Dr. Peter Sarosi, delivered the boy and arranged his adoption. Essig acknowledged Thursday he'd picked up the boy from the child's grandmother in a hospital parking lot and driven him to Steinberg, who was an attorney. He said he thought the June 1986 adoption was on the up-and-up, though he didn't carry any paperwork along with the child.

"My understanding was that this was the grandmother, this was a lawyer and this was legal," said Essig, who wasn't charged with any crime.

Police found the boy tied to a playpen and drinking spoiled milk in Steinberg's apartment in November 1987. They'd been called to help Steinberg's unconscious 6-year-old, Lisa Steinberg, who died of head injuries three days later.

Steinberg hit Lisa for staring at him, ignored her injuries and smoked cocaine, according to testimony at his trial from his lover, Hedda Nussbaum, who said a long history of physical and psychological abuse from Steinberg left her unable to aid Lisa.

Steinberg was convicted of manslaughter and spent about 17 years behind bars. He repeatedly denied responsibility for Lisa's death, called himself a good father and argued that the media had unfairly characterized him as a monster.

The boy was returned to his biological mother.

Sarosi pleaded guilty to unlawfully placing a child for adoption, a misdemeanor. He said he didn't know the law and thought he was helping an unwed teen mother and an infertile couple. He was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and three years of probation and lost his license for a time. Now back in practice, he declined to comment Thursday.

Essig said he had given Sarosi "the benefit of the doubt" after the episode, partly because he wasn't certain his Hungarian-born colleague understood U.S. adoption practices. Essig left their practice in 1995. He's now an assistant professor at New York University's Langone Medical Center and in private practice.

He was the first defense witness in the officers' month-old trial. Essig, who reviewed medical records in the case, testified that he didn't believe an internal bruise to the officers' accuser was indicative of rape; a forensic examiner who testified for prosecutors said it could be.

The woman, now 29, and the officers met in December 2008 after a taxi driver called police saying she was too drunk to get out of his cab after a night out with friends.

While her memory of that night is spotty, the woman told jurors last month that she acutely recalls awakening to being raped and was certain the officers were responsible.

She didn't initially know who they were, but after contacting prosecutors, she confronted Moreno in a secretly taped conversation in which he alternately denied having sex with her and seemed to admit it, twice saying he'd used a condom. His lawyer has said the seemingly incriminating statements were just efforts to appease her.

Moreno's lawyer says the woman misremembers what happened and she and the officer had "physical contact" but not sex as he tried to counsel her while fending off drunken flirtations.

Mata's lawyer says Mata, who is accused of acting as a lookout while Moreno forced himself on the woman, did nothing criminal and there was no rape.

Surveillance video shows the officers went back to the woman's building three times within four hours after initially ushering her inside, while they told dispatchers they were elsewhere. Defense lawyers have said the woman asked them to check on her during the night.

Mata and Moreno have been suspended until a New York Police Department review after their trial. If convicted of rape, the officers each could face up to 25 years in prison.


Associated Press researcher Julie Reed contributed to this report.