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Joel Steinberg Trial: 1988-89 - A Deadly Relationship, Cocaine Rage

nussbaum lisa apartment york

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.

Joel Steinberg conferring with his attorneys. Steinberg was convicted of murdering 6-year-oid Lisa Steinberg whom he had illegally adopted (AP/Wide World Photos) Joel Steinberg conferring with his attorneys. Steinberg was convicted of murdering 6-year-oid Lisa Steinberg whom he had illegally adopted (AP/Wide World Photos)

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.

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almost 7 years ago

Eventhough this happened years ago it's still so very sad this man should have got the death penalty and Hedda should have done at leat 25 years to life

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over 9 years ago

Steinberg should have gotten the death penalty...don't think NY has it though. Nussbaum...likely accessory to murder.

That Joel Steinberg looks like he has some screws loose, big-time.

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almost 10 years ago

Nussbaum is one lucky so-and-so that I wasn't the prosecutor, because if I were, she would have an adjoining cell right next to Steinberg. That way, if she fancied a beating he'd be right there to give it to her.

Hey, if you like to blow coke and get beaten up that's your business, but the minute children are involved it's time to stand up as an ADULT and take responsibility for your life and your actions. Nussbaum was ALONE with the dying Lisa for HOURS that night. She sat there and ATE DINNER while that child lay on the bathroom floor. She had to STEP OVER her if she wanted to use the toilet! What the hell was she doing out of prison?!

Do I buy this "I'm too powerless and abused to help my own children" garbage? Not for a minute. She would say ANYTHING to stay out of the clink. What if it was the other way around and it was a MAN who claimed to be so stoked up on drugs and "battered" that he sat there and watched a little girl die? Would we consider that a viable defense? I think not!

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over 10 years ago

Well I was Elizabeths friend in school and I think that this man should go to jail not for 25 years forlife or let someone do to him what he did to Elizabeth. Also I dont undertsand how his lawyer can defend someone that killed a child. these people are sick. But carma is a B#%!& and what geos around comes around.