Maximum Sentence in Girl’s Death : Judge Cites a Lack of Remorse; Steinberg Given Up to 25 Years

Times Staff Writer

Declaring the defendant never showed any remorse, a judge Friday angrily sentenced disbarred lawyer Joel Steinberg to the maximum of 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison for killing his illegally adopted daughter in a case that focused national attention on the growing problem of child abuse linked to drugs.

Acting New York State Supreme Court Justice Harold Rothwax brushed aside Steinberg’s plea that he should be pitied as a “victim” and accused him of “extraordinary narcissism and self involvement.” Rothwax also fined him $5,000.

“The defendant . . . has never accepted any responsibility. I have come to believe he is incapable of accepting responsibility,” Rothwax said. “He has never offered any explanation except those that have been shown to be demonstrably false.

‘Need to Control’


“His extreme need to control everyone in his ambit led him to become the instrument of Lisa’s death,” the judge added. “There is nothing in the record to mitigate the extreme callousness and harshness of his conduct, and he is deserving of the maximum sentence provided by law. . . . The court strongly and emphatically recommends against the release of this defendant on parole.”

Lisa Steinberg, 6, died in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan on Nov. 5, 1987, after being beaten and left on the bathroom floor of the Greenwich Village apartment Steinberg shared with his then lover, Hedda Nussbaum. During a 3-month trial, in which Nussbaum was a principal prosecution witness, there was testimony that Steinberg went out to dinner with a client, then returned home and took cocaine for several hours before summoning help for the child 12 hours after the beating.

When police entered the apartment, they found another illegally adopted child, Mitchell, 16 months old, drinking spoiled milk.

Televised Plea

A jury convicted Steinberg, 47, of first-degree manslaughter Jan. 30. He did not take the stand in his own defense during the trial, but in an extraordinary scene televised on two New York local stations Friday, Steinberg spoke for the first time in court and sought leniency.

Steinberg attacked the credibility of his probation report and medical testimony about the children during the trial.

“At no point did I ever strike them in any form,” Steinberg told the court. “I did not hit, strike or use any form of forceful discipline to those children. Those children were not locked in a house of horrors.”

Referring to Lisa, he added: “I had a consistently joyous, happy relationship with her.”


Steinberg claimed that when he left the apartment, he did not sense there was anything wrong with his daughter.

“The thing I feel the most difficulty about,” he said, his voice breaking, “is not making the judgment to seek medical attention the moment I came home. . . . I did not make the judgment it was necessary. . . . If there was anything wrong with Lisa I would not have left.

“I made an error of judgment. On reflection, after hearing the testimony, I should have sought medical attention. I did not make that judgment. . . .

“I feel that pain every day. That is my loss. It is not like a defendant who stands before you and perpetrates a crime on an outside victim. I’m the loss, the victim.”


Grimmer Picture

But prosecutors, in asking for the maximum sentence, painted a grimmer picture.

As the child “lay dying, he went to dinner with a drug-dealing friend of his and came back and free-based cocaine,” Assistant Dist. Atty. John McClusker charged.

McClusker told the court that Steinberg exhibited a “total lack of concern for anyone else but Joel Steinberg.”


The prosecutor said that during their relationship, Steinberg “single-handedly reduced Miss Nussbaum to a horrible battered shell of a human being.

‘Life of Violence’

“It is clear Mr. Steinberg has no qualms about destroying human life,” McClusker charged, adding that the defendant enjoyed “a life of violence and self gratification.”

”. . . He has never shown any sorrow or remorse a young child’s life was taken and he was responsible. He has never shown any responsibility for his actions.”


Nussbaum, 46, also had been charged in the girl’s death, but the counts were dropped on the grounds that 12 years of battering by Steinberg made her incapable of either violence or coming to Lisa’s aid.

Nussbaum watched the sentencing on television at the Manhattan office of her attorney, Betty Levinson, who quoted her as saying, “How can he stand there and lie with such a straight face?”