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Joel Steinberg Trial: 1988-89

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.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Joel Steinberg Trial: 1988-89 - A Deadly Relationship, Cocaine Rage