Joel Steinberg Trial: 1988-89

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Joel Steinberg Trial: 1988-89

Defendant: Joel Steinberg
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Ira London and Adrian DiLuzio
Chief Prosecutors: Peter Casolaro and John McCusker
Judge: Harold Rothwax
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trial: October 25, 1988-January 30, 1989
Verdict: Guilty, First degree manslaughter
Sentence: 8½-25 years

SIGNIFICANCE: New York's first-ever televised murder trial held the interest of the nation with its account of chronic child abuse and obsessive love. Initial audience anger and frustration with an adoption system that could allow such a thing to happen soon coalesced into bewilderment over why a seemingly intelligent and upscale couple would resort to such atrocities.

For 12 years criminal lawyer Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum, a former editor and writer of children's books, shared a one-bedroom apartment in New York City's Greenwich Village. Theirs was a brutal relationship, fueled by cocaine and sadomasochistic sex. Violent beatings often sent Nussbaum to the hospital, but she always returned to the man she loved and their filthy apartment. One observer would later describe it as "a cave." Inexplicably, they sought to introduce children into this nightmare, but they were unable to have children themselves. Steinberg used his knowledge of legal loopholes to "adopt" two babies without filing the necessary paperwork. These loopholes cost one little girl her life.

At 6:35 a.m. on Monday, November 2, 1987, a 911 call from Nussbaum brought paramedics to the apartment. They found 6-year-old Lisa naked and emaciated, unable to breathe, covered with bruises. Steinberg, 47, his knuckles scratched and raw, told the paramedics that she had choked on some food and lapsed into a coma, and he had attempted to revive her with a combination of cardiopulmonary resuscitation and the Heimlich maneuver. Nussbaum, 46, watching from the bedroom, said nothing. Investigators later found the couple's other child, Mitchell, 16 months old, tethered to a makeshift playpen with a rope. He too showed obvious signs of neglect.

The full extent of Lisa's maltreatment became apparent at the hospital. Hardly an inch of her 43-pound-body was unmarked. Guided by the varying discoloration, doctors were able to plot a long pattern of abuse. The examination resulted in Steinberg and Nussbaum being charged with attempted murder. On November 5, when it became clear that Lisa would never recover from the coma, her life-support system was removed. The couple now faced murder charges.

In building their case, prosecutors realized that to secure a conviction against Joel Steinberg, they needed Hedda Nussbaum's testimony. Reluctantly they agreed to drop all charges against her if she would cooperate with their inquiries. She readily agreed.

A Deadly Relationship

The trial opened October 25, 1988, before Judge Harold Rothwax. In what promised to be an emotional hearing, a cool head on the bench was essential, and Judge Rothwax had a reputation as a jurist of unflappable demeanor. He presided over a courtroom packed with spectators and members of the media. In his opening address, Assistant District Attorney Peter Casolaro made it clear that he would be picking apart the relationship between Steinberg and Nussbaum piece by piece. By this means he hoped to convince the jury of Steinberg's guilt. But first there was the medical evidence.

Dr. Douglas Miller, a New York pathologist, told the court that Lisa had died from a brain hemorrhage caused by a blow to her right temple. He also described two other severe blows. All three, in his opinion, were administered by a large, strong person. Every eye in court fell on the powerfully built Steinberg. He remained impassive. A videotape of Nussbaum, filmed by police on the night of her arrest, showed a battered, frail woman, barely able to walk, let alone capable of beating anyone to death.

Other witnesses testified to the tragedy and traumas of Lisa's brief life, but only Hedda Nussbaum could provide the evidence that would convict Joel Steinberg. When she took the stand, the problem, as prosecutors saw it, was to build her credibility with the jury. For her testimony to be believed, she had to be presented as yet another of Steinberg's victims. Casolaro started off slowly, asking Nussbaum to describe her feelings towards her former lover.

"I thought he was probably the most wonderful man I'd ever met."

"What qualities was it that attracted you to him, Miss Nussbaum?"

"Well, he seemed to be extremely intelligent and bright, and I loved to hear him talk for hours."

Cocaine Rage

But any admiration that she felt for Steinberg soon faded. She catalogued their mutual involvement with cocaine and the fury that it provoked in him. Without any provocation he would pound her unmercifully with his fists. Five times between 1983 and 1985, she fled the house. Casolaro, anticipating the defense, asked why on each occasion she had not taken Lisa with her. Nussbaum's answer was most illuminating. "I thought she would be better off with Joel's care. I thought that he had tremendous insight and ability to handle people, including children, and he was very sensitive, and that I had those problems and obviously caused problems in the house." With these few words, Hedda went to the core of what came to be known as the "Nussbaum Defense," an attempt to show the world a woman whose self-esteem had been so undermined by Steinberg as to make her feel worthless and, by extension, not wholly responsible for her actions.

In her flat voice, Nussbaum described the deadly argument. It began, like nearly all the others, over something inconsequential. Steinberg became incensed because she and Lisa had not drunk any water. From such trivia he routinely manufactured rages that would last for hours. On this occasion he insisted that they both eat slices of hot pepper, then forced them to drink several glasses of water. Later, Nussbaum was in the bathroom. "The next thing was that Joel came into the bathroom carrying Lisa in his arms." She had been beaten senseless. For an hour, Nussbaum said, she and Steinberg attempted to revive Lisa, then Steinberg left to attend a business meeting. When he returned later that night, Lisa was still unconscious. The couple used cocaine and went to bed. At six o'clock the next morning Nussbaum woke Steinberg with the news that Lisa wasn't breathing. Minutes later she dialed 911.

It took no great effort for the prosecutors to depict Steinberg as a villain, but in attempting to portray Hedda Nussbaum as a hapless and helpless victim of abuse, they had fallen short of their goal. Now it was up to defense counsel Ira London to demonstrate that this particular tragedy had more than one villain.

He began by delving into Nussbaum's background. "Do you consider yourself to have had an unhappy upbringing?"

"Not especially."

"Do you consider it to have been uneventful?"

" I think it was average."

Unable to make much headway with this line of questioning, London turned to an incident in 1981, when Steinberg had beaten Nussbaum so badly that her spleen had to he surgically removed. The next day, Steinberg showed up at the hospital. Nussbaum admitted that she was pleased to see him. "I was feeling very connected to him, not like he was someone who had hurt me."

London pounced. "Are you familiar with the term masochist?"

Nussbaum acknowledged that she was. London also drew from her an admission that she should have done more to help Lisa on the night of her final beating. When Nussbaum dissolved into tears, London asked who the tears were for. "Hedda," she answered, then added as an afterthought, "and Lisa."

Because Joel Steinberg chose not to testify, we only have Hedda Nussbaum's version of what happened on the night that Lisa was beaten. All Ira London could offer by way of defense was an attempt to prove that it was Nussbaum who had caused Lisa's death, not Steinberg. After 12 weeks of testimony, the jury convicted Steinberg of first degree manslaughter. Steinberg did speak at his sentencing on March 24, 1988, a rambling and incoherent address that did nothing to affect the outcome. Judge Harold Rothwax imposed a prison term of 8½-25 years.

In the wake of this case, New York State passed new legislation in 1988. Called the "Lisa Law," it was designed to seal some of the glaring loopholes in laws affecting private adoptions.

Enormous publicity surrounded the trial of Joel Steinberg. For many people, it was their first indication that child abuse knows no financial boundaries, has nothing to do with social status or income, and can prosper anywhere.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading.

Brownmiller, Susan. "Madly In Love." Ms. (April 1989): 56ff.

Johnson, Joyce. What Lisa Knew. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1990.

Volk, Patricia. "The Steinberg Trial." New York Times Magazine (January 15, 1989): 22ff.

Wulfhorst, E. and B. Goldberg. "The Steinberg File." New York (April 17, 1989): 42ff.