Witness for the Persecution

With breathless intensity Kim Mascola's story jumps from the TV screen:
"Tonight on Crime Special Edition, 'MURDER FOR HIRE!,'" thunders the announcer. "A wealthy lawyer hires a hit man to kill his unborn twins, even if it means murdering their mother. And what was her crime? Well, she wasn't Jewish. It's a Dateline/Court TV exclusive!"

This past fall, cable's Court TV repeatedly aired this hourlong special, based on a February 1996 Dateline NBC broadcast. Dateline had been Kim Mascola's big break. But as she recalls on a recent morning, in the end she was used, misled. "Dateline called and said, 'We want to do it as a woman's survival story, what you've been through.' But they made it so sensational."

It's hard not to. Mascola's former boyfriend, Hollywood, Florida, lawyer David Lusskin, stood trial in January 1995 for conspiring to murder her after she refused to abort her unborn twins -- his twins, too, because he'd impregnated her.

"Even his defense lawyer acknowledged that Lusskin was a spoiled son of privilege," Dateline correspondent Victoria Corderi proclaims on-screen. "A 34-year-old attorney with few clients, who spent most of his days playing computer games."

Lusskin's family didn't approve of Mascola because she wasn't Jewish, the jury heard, and Lusskin feared that having out-of-wedlock twins might interfere with his dreams of one day becoming a judge.

Then Mascola appears on TV being interviewed by Corderi, telling how Lusskin called the unborn kids a "tumor," a "mound of flesh."

"I disagree," Mascola replies. "I feel it live. I feel it tick."
Why had she stayed with Lusskin despite years of his family's disapproval? Corderi asks.

"I loved him," Mascola responds. "I just loved him, and there wasn't any strings attached to that."

Why had she loved him so much? Corderi prods.
"How do you explain that? I don't know, you know, I don't know why. Is it the physical? Was it a physical thing? There was a lot of chemistry between us."

After a commercial break, viewers watch as prostitute/police informant Bonnie Johnson testifies about the tape recorder she had carried in a cigarette pack in her sock as she spoke with Lusskin in the summer of 1993. Then they hear the scratchy, muffled voice of David Lusskin. "I want to make sure she doesn't give birth to those twins," he tells Johnson. "How, I don't care."

Later, after Johnson informed Lusskin she'd found a hit man to do the job, she taped him suggesting ways to carry out the task. "How about, you know, using a baseball bat across the stomach," he suggests. "We're talking, you got to hit her hard enough, enough that can cause internal damage and bleeding."

The plot was never carried out. Johnson informed Hollywood police, who set up around-the-clock protection for Mascola, eventually arresting Lusskin in September 1993.

On TV, Dateline segues into its second half, but the story no longer deals with Mascola's survival. "Now," Corderi tells viewers, "instead of a devoted girlfriend, she was a scheming manipulator." Footage of a strained Mascola on the witness stand fills the screen -- hair pulled back, drab olive-green blouse -- as Corderi pounds: "Kim Mascola was, the defense said, a gold digger, a would-be actress whose movie career spans a few seconds as an extra in this 1985 Burt Reynolds movie Stick." (A film clip of Mascola's head flashes across the screen.) "Her real career, the defense said, was trying to become Mrs. David Lusskin, and her pregnancy was no accident!"

On the witness stand, Mascola is being cross-examined by Lusskin defense attorney David Bogenschutz, who tells the jury that this trial is about a "cast of crazies, people with no lives except that they create them out of their own fantasies."

Bogenschutz to Mascola: Did you in fact attempt to get pregnant?

Mascola: No.
Bogenschutz: You continued to see him and you continued to have relations with him, did you not, knowing that he was not using protection and that you have been told by a doctor that your birth control method might not be effective, correct?

Mascola: Yes.

None of that mattered. Jurors later told Dateline they listened again and again to the Johnson tapes, zeroing in on the tone of Lusskin's voice as he talked about the baseball bat across the stomach.

On January 20, 1995, after deliberating for five hours, jurors convicted David Lusskin of solicitation to commit first-degree murder and solicitation to commit the killing of unborn children.

Eight days later Brett and Brittany, Kim Mascola's twin boy and girl, turned one year old.

But the TV special isn't over yet. It moves to Lusskin's February 1995 sentencing, where Mascola approaches the witness stand to testify, then suddenly reaches out toward her ex-boyfriend. Says Corderi, "It was, to the amazement of all in the courtroom, a hug."

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Dan Lovely