Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Killing of Lisa Steinberg

Trial By TV

District Attorney Robert Morgenthau (AP)
District Attorney Robert Morgenthau (AP)

On Friday, November 6, 1987, Joel Steinberg was indicted for second degree murder, first degree manslaughter, and endangering the welfare of a child. He was held without bail and placed under a suicide watch on Riker's Island, New York's sprawling detention center. District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said that Lisa's death was "one of the most tragic and horrible cases that we've seen."   Morgenthau also blasted the state's adoption procedures, which had placed Lisa in Nussbaum's and Steinberg's care. "If there had been a thorough background investigation, there was a chance he (Steinberg) would not have been granted custody," he said.

In the months following the couple's arrests there were hundreds of stories about Lisa's life. The hostility toward the defendants was remarkable. Almost daily, the city's newspapers ran a story about Steinberg and Nussbaum. Repeated printings and airings of photos of a smiling and adorable Lisa generated sympathy for the little girl and antipathy for her parents. 

But it wasn't just the photos or the press stories that fed the public's interest. In December 1987, television cameras were allowed into New York's courtrooms for the first time. It was an 18-month experiment in which the effects of live television coverage of trials would be measured and assessed. (This experiment lead to the founding of Court TV in July 1991.) In March 1988, cameras were permitted at the sentencing of Robert Chambers, the man convicted of murdering Jennifer Levin in Central Park.  That broadcast was a "success" – there was little public outcry about cameras and ratings soared. Live coverage of a trial was the next step. The Steinberg case featured two social issues: spousal abuse and child abuse. "Our obligation is to broadcast the testimony as much as possible," said one CBS executive. "We felt the viewer deserved to see more of the testimony than we could put in one of our newscasts."

But then, as now, the most vociferous objections to television coverage came from lawyers and judges. Would lawyers play to the cameras? Would witnesses be intimidated knowing that their words were being broadcast? Even though there faces would not be shown, how would jurors react? Would television coverage increase the chances of jury tampering? As is true with all televised trials, applications for coverage were submitted to the judge. The judge could grant or reject them. The applications were approved and the stage was set. CNN, however, declined to broadcast the trial. A network executive opined that Nussbaum "was not an exciting witness."

The trial opened October 25, 1988. In his opening statement, assistant district attorney Peter Casolaro said the evidence would "show a graphic and grotesque chain of events" and that "Joel Steinberg beat Lisa so severely that he caused her death…"  Casolaro pointed to Steinberg and said, "His story is inconsistent and impossible to reconcile with Lisa Steinberg's condition." Ira London, a top-flight criminal defense lawyer, replied that Nussbaum's testimony "will be the product of a delusional woman suffering from mental illness in a psychiatric hospital."  He promised to provide witnesses who would testify to Nussbaum's "self-destructive romance with satanic cults, her sadomasochistic behavior outside the home and her involvement with pornography."

But on October 26, 1988, Manhattan's District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau came to a pivotal and dramatic decision. Hedda Nussbaum would not be prosecuted in any way for the death of Lisa. The charges were dropped with the expectation she would be the star witness against her former lover, Joel Steinberg. "Our investigation revealed that Miss Nussbaum was so physically and mentally incapacitated on the night of the murder," said prosecutor John McCusker, "that she was not criminally responsible for Lisa's death." The decision was greeted with immediate animosity and controversy. Some people felt that despite her condition, Nussbaum still could have made a phone call for help. But there could be no doubt that her attorney, Barry Scheck, had scored for his client and scored big time. Hedda, who stayed home rearranging Joel's business files all night while a 6-year-old child lay on the floor forcing her to step over the body to go to the bathroom, would face no charges in her death.  


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