Jewish World Review July 2, 2004 / 13 Tamuz, 5764

Felice Cohen

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Consumer Reports

Chained or changed? | After 17 years in jail and five denials for parole, is convicted murderer Joel Steinberg a changed man? I doubt it. But he is a free man. Sure it won't be easy for him to play in the park, buy a slice or make friends at the gym, but maybe he should have thought about that before he bashed 6 year-old Lisa's head into the walls of her skull.

During those years in jail — not even the full 25 —year sentence, which wouldn't have been enough, considering that Lisa should have been playing with friends, graduating from college and falling in love over that stretch of time — has Steinberg changed his ways?

When I was in college, a friend of mine was murdered. Her name was Tara, and her estranged boyfriend, whom she had a restraining order against (after numerous beatings and after they had a baby together), drove to the house she shared with five roommates, and killed her.

I was at the house that day playing with the baby while Julie, one of her roommates, and Tara cleaned up. Their roommates were returning the next day from spring break. Julie and I went to a party and later that night, another friend drove Julie home. Less than a half hour later, my phone rang.

"Come quickly! Julie's house! Fire! Dead body." As I drove up, I saw red sirens piercing the usually pitch black area. I found Julie sitting in the back of an ambulance, wrapped in a wool blanket, shaking.

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A young police officer approached with a priest. As the roommate, Julie needed to identify the body. Julie got up and reached for my hand. With her other hand she reached for the priest. I reached for the police officer. As a human chain, we walked slowly to the backyard to see something that would forever change us.

"Are you ready?" the police officer asked. Julie sighed an empty "Yes." The police officer lifted the tarp, and we saw the young vibrant woman who had earlier snuggled her daughter and vacuumed the living room, dead.

In the next few days the story became clear. The ex-boyfriend came to the house, took a kitchen knife and stabbed Tara repeatedly. She fought back, but after nine stabs, collapsed. He then doused the house in gasoline and lit a match. The baby, luckily, was with Tara's parents.

Months later Julie testified in court. The ex-boyfriend was sentenced to 20 years for arson and life without parole for first-degree murder. He appealed. He wanted a chance at parole. He didn't get it. But even if he did, would time behind bars and a certain number of "Good Behavior" check offs make him a changed man? Does it matter? How about, "You are free to go when the person you killed comes to pick you up." No amount of time can bring a dead person back.

So as Steinberg takes to the streets a free man, be warned. Free does not mean changed.

Comment on JWR contributor Felice Cohen's column by clicking here.


06/10/04: Waiting game
06/01/04: Sticks and stones
05/19/04: Psychic seekings: The gift
04/21/04: The latest job fad: China dolls for hire may be
04/16/04: Stories to be told
03/31/04: Shades of gray
03/23/04: Rejoice, ‘preppy’ is back
03/16/04: Taking a bad shot

© 2004, Felice Cohen