The 2 1/2-hour sentencing hearing, marked by clashes between Rothwax and defense lawyers, was the first time Steinberg had spoken in court about 6- year-old Lisa's death.
His statement elicited no sympathy from Lisa's natural mother, Michelle Launders; his former lover and chief accuser, Hedda Nussbaum; or three jurors who convicted Steinberg of first-degree manslaughter and attended the sentencing.
They praised Rothwax's decision and denounced Steinberg as a manipulative liar.
"Hedda was furious that Joel denied killing Lisa," said her lawyer, Betty Levinson, who watched the sentencing on TV with Nussbaum.
"She said, 'How can he stand there and say that?' " Levinson said.
Nussbaum is a patient at Four Winds Psychiatric Hospital in Westchester, but expected to be released soon.
Launders called Steinberg's plea for mercy "a lie. I don't believe he feels anything for anyone but himself."
Steinberg, who has already served 16 months in jail, could be paroled in seven years. He would have to serve nearly 17 years - two-thirds of the maximum - before he would be entitled to release with time off for good behavior if he is not paroled.
Defense lawyers said Steinberg, 47, a disbarred lawyer, will appeal his conviction.
In a rambling 20-minute plea, Steinberg denied beating Lisa or mistreating a second child he and Nussbaum illegally adopted.
"Those children were not locked in a house of horror," said Steinberg, who spoke softly and gestured nervously.
He said he gave Lisa "constant nurturing, constant caring (and) constant love," but said he regretted the 12-hour delay in getting medical attention that may have cost Lisa her life.
"I feel I should have sensed . . . the need for medical attention," he said. "I did not. That bothers me the most."
At one point, Steinberg tried to give a complicated medical explanation that he felt proved he did not kill Lisa. Rothwax seemed bemused.
"Your honor is laughing," Steinberg said.
"I'm not laughing," Rothwax shot back. "I'm just astonished by it."
Steinberg was convicted of first-degree manslaughter in the November 1987 beating death of Lisa. The jury, which deliberated eight days, acquitted him of murder.
Prosecutors said he beat Lisa unconscious and did not call for help for 12 hours. Rather than calling police, Steinberg left his Greenwich Village apartment and went to dinner with a friend. He then returned and smoked cocaine for several hours.
Prosecutors dropped charges against Nussbaum because, they said, Steinberg had battered her so badly for 10 years that she was "incapacitated" and not criminally responsible for Lisa's death.
Nussbaum testified for seven days, mesmerizing jurors with tales of beatings, drug abuse and mind control. Her lawyers contend Steinberg gave Nussbaum scores of black eyes, broke her ribs repeatedly, and beat her to the ''verge" of death.
Steinberg's original lawyers, Ira London and Adrian DiLuzio, had argued that Nussbaum killed Lisa in a jealous rage.
In asking for the maximum sentence, assistant district attorney John McCusker said that although Steinberg was once a lawyer, he actually led a life of crime.
He said Steinberg was guilty of drug use, illegal possession of a weapon, illegal adoptions and numerous assaults on Nussbaum, two prior girlfriends and a male friend.
He said Steinberg also illegally practiced law because he faked his way out of taking the bar exam.
"Mr. Steinberg has shown not one ounce of remorse for killing Elizabeth," McCusker said.
"The killing of Lisa Steinberg was the culmination of the life Joel Steinberg had led . . . It was a life of violence, selfishness and self- gratification at the expense of other people."
In asking for leniency, Gilroy said Steinberg was a good father who was incapable of hurting Lisa.
"He did not assault the child Lisa," Gilroy said. "He did not at any time harm that child. He did not touch that child. He did not kill that child."