Aussie mum facing death row
AN AUSTRALIAN mother-of-four faces a potential death sentence in the US after being indicted in Arizona for the abuse and murder of her mentally ill seven-year-old stepdaughter.
Lisa Cunningham, 43, was raised in Adelaide and moved to the US after marrying an American serviceman just over 20 years ago.
Overnight, a Maricopa County judge ruled after a two-day hearing that she and her husband, Germayne Cunningham, were eligible for the death penalty if convicted at their upcoming trial.
The Phoenix Times newspaper reported Cunningham's daughter, Sanaa, died of pneumonia and complications such as sepsis in February last year.
However, prosecutors allege the Cunninghams restrained Sanaa with plastic ties, a makeshift straight jacket and shackles, forced her to wear diapers and locked her in a laundry room or outside.
They also allege the parents forced her to pick up dog faeces with her bare hands and neglected to treat a wound on her foot that turned septic.
Prosecutors say restraints were used to tie up Sanaa, who was severely ill with pneumonia at the time of her death - which prevented her from expelling liquid from her lungs.
They add that she was unresponsive, drooling and unable to stand when she was finally taken to hospital, where she died four hours later.
The court heard Sanaa was afflicted by schizophrenia and other behavioural disorders.
"There were many warning signs with regard to her need for medical attention," Judge Michael Kemp said at last week's hearing, according to the Phoenix Times.
"This was more than reckless behaviour. This was more than a failure to provide care and it led to the child's death."
However, the defence have pointed to the Sanaa's autopsy report, which was inconclusive as to whether she was killed or died by accident.
The couple's lawyers say the Cunninghams were only trying to stop Sanaa from harming herself and others.
Pathologists found "extensive scarring, marks, scrapes, scratches, bruises and open wounds … found on every plane of (the) victim's body" but could not say how she received the injuries. The Cunninghams say Sanaa injured herself while thrashing.
The Australian reports Cunningham's daughter, Cierra Anderson, said her family had not received any assistance from the Australian government. "We've asked, and asked, and gotten nowhere," she said.
As an Australian citizen, Cunningham would appear to be eligible for up to $500,000 in legal-fee funding from the Overseas Criminal Matters Scheme, which provides funds to Australians facing the death penalty.
Police investigated the case for 10 months before indicting the Cunninghams on 10 charges of child abuse and one of first-degree murder last December.
They were immediately released on bail, with ankle bracelets and a curfew. However, just 10 days ago, prosecutors told the court they would seek the death penalty for the couple.
Cunningham is the first Australian woman to ever face the death penalty in the US, and the first Australian since the hanging of a man in California in the 1850s gold rush era.
The method of capital punishment in Arizona is lethal injection or gas.
A hearing is scheduled for October.
- with wires