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Joel Steinberg (born May 25, 1941), a former New Yorkmarker criminal defense attorney, attracted international media attention when he was accused of murder and convicted of manslaughter in the November 1, 1987, death of a six-year-old girl, Elizabeth ("Lisa"), whom he and his live-in partner Hedda Nussbaum had "adopted". Steinberg had reportedly been hired to locate a suitable adoptive family for Lisa, but instead took the child home and raised her with Nussbaum, never filing formal adoption papers.

Crime and punishment

Steinberg was specifically accused of hitting Lisa on the head and then not seeking medical attention for the child, supposedly because he was under the influence of cocaine. She died at St. Vincent Hospital after being removed from life support on November 4, 1987 three days later after being transported from the apartment in New Yorkmarker's Greenwich Villagemarker that Steinberg shared with Lisa, Mitchell (a younger child also adopted by Steinberg, 18 months old at the time of Lisa's death), and Steinberg's partner Hedda Nussbaum. Both the boy and Nussbaum showed signs of physical abuse, and Nussbaum's battered, unkempt appearance did much to fuel the media frenzy that accompanied the story of Lisa's death.

In exchange for her testimony against Steinberg, Nussbaum was not prosecuted for events related to Lisa's death (Nussbaum was alone in the apartment with an unconscious and bleeding Lisa for over ten hours without seeking any medical attention for the girl). At Steinberg's trial, his defense suggested that Nussbaum's extensive injuries, which included severe damage to the face and permanent spinal damage (which did not limit her ability to move or walk), resulted from a consensual sadomasochistic relationship between the two. Her attorneys claimed her remaining with him when he beat her was a sign of battered woman's syndrome.

Unable to convict Steinberg on the more serious charge of second-degree murder (in New York Statemarker at that time, first degree murder applied only to those who killed police officers or had committed murder while already serving a sentence for a previous murder), the jury convicted him of the second most serious charge, first-degree manslaughter. The judge then sentenced him to the maximum penalty then available for that charge — 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison.

two occasions, Steinberg was denied discretionary parole, mainly because he never expressed remorse for the killing. However, on June 30, 2004, he was paroled under the state's "good time" law, which mandates release of inmates who exhibit good behavior while incarcerated after having served as little as two-thirds of the maximum possible sentence. (New York State has since increased this ratio to six-sevenths of the maximum term for persons convicted of violent felonies.) Steinberg had spent most of his imprisonment at New York State's "Supermax" prison, the Southport Correctional Facilitymarker, presumably to prevent him from being attacked by other inmates.

After his release, Steinberg moved to Harlemmarker, where he took up work in the construction industry. He continues to maintain his innocence.

Meanwhile, the other child in the case ended up being reunited with his biological mother, Nicole Bridget Smigiel.


On January 16, 2007, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division (New York's intermediate appellate court) upheld a $15 million dollar award against Steinberg to Michele Launders, Lisa's birth mother. In its opinion, the court rejected the position that Steinberg, acting as his own attorney, put forth:

[F]or Steinberg to dismiss the 8 to 10 hours preceding Lisa's death as "at most eight hours of pain and suffering" or as he alternatively states, a "quick loss of consciousness" (emphasis supplied), demonstrates that he is as devoid of any empathy or human emotion now as he was almost 20 years ago when he stood trial for Lisa's homicide. As any parent and, no doubt, most adults who have taken trips with young children can attest, the oft-heard question, "are we there yet?" is a clear illustration that, the more anticipated an event or destination so, seemingly slower the passage of time in a child's mind. For Lisa, lying on a bathroom floor, her body aching from bruises of "varying ages," her brain swelling from her father's "staggering blow," those 8 to 10 hours so cavalierly dismissed by Steinberg must have seemed like eternity as she waited and wondered when someone would come to comfort her and help make the pain go away.

In popular culture

The case was adapted with modifications as a Law & Order episode, "Indifference", which ended with a disclaimer that was read aloud pointing out the actual conclusion of the real case. Fourteen years later, in an episode entitled "Fixed," the program brought back the character inspired by Steinberg (Jacob Lowenstein) who was killed after being released on parole. The episode was inspired by Steinberg's actual release.


External links

  • Lisa Steinberg Memorial at Find A Grave

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