Aussie death penalty mum’s texts could be critical
TEXT messages sent by an Australian mother-of-four charged with the alleged murder of her mentally ill stepdaughter in the US will play a crucial role at trial, it has emerged.
Adelaide-born Lisa Cunningham, 43, and her detective-turned-prison guard husband Germayne Cunningham, 38, face the death penalty following their indictment for the abuse, neglect and murder of seven-year-old Sanaa Cunningham in February 2017.
A post mortem examination found the little girl's body covered "from head to toe" with at least 60 scars and more than 100 cuts and bruises.
She also had multiple ulcers and abscesses on her nose, hands, legs and feet and died of septic shock - unable to expel bacteria from her lungs because she had been bound with restraints.
Pathologists were unable to state unequivocally if Sanaa died as a direct result of the festering wounds or inadequate treatment of them.
But the couple's lawyers argue the autopsy report stops short of declaring her death a homicide and have accused police of botching a report detailing Lisa Cunningham's text messages in the lead up to the tragedy.
The text messages are described as "critical to criminal and medical findings" and are expected to play a key role in the Cunninghams' impending trial.
Maricopa County Judge Michael Kemp remanded the pair into custody last month for the first time since police laid murder charges in December, after prosecutors confirmed they would seek the death penalty for both.
"There were many warning signs with regard to her need for medical attention," Judge Michael Kemp said, according to the Phoenix New Times.
"This was more than reckless behaviour. This was more than a failure to provide care and it led to the child's death."
The defence argue that the autopsy was unable to determine cause of death or establish whether Sanaa died as a result of homicide or accident.
The Cunninghams have told investigators they were forced to restrain Sanaa, who is Germayne's daughter by first wife Sylvia Norwood, to prevent her from hurting herself and her siblings.
The pair face a raft of horror allegations, including that they bound the seven-year-old with plastic police ties, shackles and a homemade straitjacket, forced her to wear nappies, locked her in the laundry or garage.
Maricopa County Prosecutors allege the Cunninghams forced the child to pick up dog faeces with her bare hands and made her sleep outside.
They say the couple treated a bone-deep wound on Sanaa's foot that turned septic, with Neosporin (an antibiotic cream) and gauze instead of taking her to the hospital.
Medical and post mortem examination records tendered to court show Sanaa had myriad mental health conditions including schizophrenia, mood disorders, and other issues that caused her to urinate and defecate uncontrollably.
She was also diagnosed with pica, a psychological disorder that saw her eat dirt and dolls' hair.
Initially, Goodyear police detectives who went to the house sided with their former colleague and no charges were filed, according to the Phoenix New Times.
Ms Cunningham moved to the US two decades ago after marrying Russell Anderson, an American soldier, but the union broke down. She eventually resettled in Phoenix, Arizona with Mr Cunningham and they went on to have two children of their own.
Cierra Anderson, Ms Cunningham's daughter by her first marriage, defended her mother and stepfather in an interview with The Australian at the weekend.
Sanaa was "completely normal until she turned six," Ms Anderson said.
"That was when the decline started, and we all had to watch it. She would become catatonic, or else she'd throw things, try to hurt us. She'd scream, and my parents would sit up and cry all night with her."
Ms Anderson says her mother took Sanaa to multiple doctors to try and establish what was wrong with the child.
"At first she was diagnosed with ADHD, and the answer was: change her diet," she told The Australian.
"But our family eats a predominantly plant-based diet. So then came autism spectrum disorder, and Mum is like, 'OK, I want a second opinion.' Then came all the other disorders: pica (eating dirt and hair) and oppositional defiance disorder, depression, bipolar, the whole range of mental illnesses. She tried to kill our dog once with a river rock.
"But the worst part was, she would try to hurt herself."
Ms Anderson says her mum and stepdad also had to restrain Sanaa and made her wear goggles to stop her from scratching at her own eyes.
"Dad would put her in a bear hug like you see on autism YouTube channels, where you hold her until she calms down," Ms Anderson said.
"And mum found a restraint shirt, you know with long sleeves you can tie up, also from looking at autism websites online, where they show what might help you."
Ms Anderson told The Australian that Sanaa slept in a downstairs laundry, away from the rest of the family, "because we had to do that because she'd get up and we'd find her looking over one of the babies' beds.
"But everything they were doing, they were doing to try to help her".
Ms Anderson's family in Australia has express disbelief at the charges and claim she would never hurt - let alone murder - a child.
"I know that Lisa is a very kind, loving person who would help anyone out if they needed it," her Adelaide-based cousin Donna Roesler told The Advertiser .
"I really don't believe Lisa would intentionally hurt another human being especially a young child no matter what issues they had."
Ms 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.
Ms 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 next month.