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URGENT Judge Rejects Insanity Plea for Joel Steinberg

December 5, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ A man on trial for beating to death his illegally adopted daughter today was denied permission to change his plea to innocent by reason of insanity, but the judge said his request could be renewed later.

The request by Joel Steinberg, accused of murdering 6-year-old Lisa Steinberg, came in the midst of testimony by the man’s former live-in lover.

Prosecutors opposed the request, and state Supreme Court Justice Harold Rothwax turned it down, but with the stipulation that Steinberg’s lawyers could renew it later if affidavits from psychiatrists were included.

Steinberg’s lawyer, Ira London, told Rothwax that new information derived from the testimony of Hedda Nussbaum prompted the change in strategy.

London said pyschiatrists who examined Steinberg earlier this year had initially not believed Steinberg was mentally incapacitated, but that Ms. Nussbaum’s testimony, coupled with their interviews with the defendant, would now allow them to testify that Steinberg lacked criminal responsibility in the girl’s death.

Ms. Nussbaum, 46, who lived with Steinberg for 17 years, testified last week that Steinberg admitted to her that he had ″knocked Lisa down″ because she was staring at him.

Lisa was taken unconscious from Steinberg’s apartment the morning of Nov. 2, 1987, to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where she died of head injuries three days later.

The death of Lisa in an affluent, well-educated household shocked many New Yorkers and led to a re-examination of the duty and ability of neighbors, teachers and social workers to recognize and report evidence of child abuse.

One of the jurors today admitted that he had seen a newspaper headline trumpeting critical comments by Mayor Edward I. Koch about Steinberg and had heard talk about the article’s contents. But he said he had not mentioned it to other jurors and did not believe it would affect his ability to be impartial.

After speaking to the juror, Rothwax, the trial judge, decided to allow him to remain on the panel.

In regard to the change of plea, Rothwax pointed out that an application to present an insanity defense normally must be filed before trial begins and within 30 days after a defendant pleads guilty to the indictment.

But the judge noted that ″for good cause shown and in the interests of justice,″ the court has discretion to permit an insanity defense to be presented at any time after an indictment.

Rothwax then asked London to explain why Steinberg should be allowed to plead ″not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.″

London said that in the past year, Steinberg had been examined by psychiatrists on two separate occasions. After each of those examinations, the psychiatrists had said they did not believe Steinberg, a lawyer who was disbarred after the killing, was suffering from any mental incapacity the night that Lisa was fatally injured.

But after hearing Ms. Nussbaum’s testimony, London said, the psychiatrists indicated that they could testify that Steinberg lacked criminal responsibility.

Ms. Nussbaum testified last week that Steinberg beat, starved and humiliated her.

In slow cadences punctuated by sighs, gulps and sobs, Ms. Nussbaum said Steinberg fed her cocaine, cut her off from her family, brainwashed her into believing she was a cultist who hypnotized people and got her fired from her job as a children’s book editor at Random House.

She also testified that she ″worshipped″ Steinberg, believed he had ″godlike″ powers and was a healer. This, she said, was in part why she did nothing to help Lisa as the child lay unconscious on the bathroom floor for hours.

Ms. Nussbaum initially was charged in Lisa’s death, but the charges were dropped after prosecutors said they found she was incapable physically and emotionally of hurting or protecting the child.

A copy of a letter purportedly written by Ms. Nussbaum about 10 years ago and obtained by Newsweek magazine sheds light on her childhood and trouble she had asserting herself.

The letter said that her mother, when pregnant with her, had wanted an abortion, the magazine reported this week.

″(My mother) insisted on doing everything for me - putting on my socks at age 6 for example, she said. ″My father, on the other hand, was always saying, ‘Listen to me. I’m older. I know better.’ The combination made me feel like I couldn’t do anything for myself and didn’t know anything.″

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