‘There was no homicide’: Lisa Cunningham could be first Australian woman to face death penalty in U.S.
Inside Arizona’s toughest women’s jail, Adelaide mum Lisa Cunningham is being treated as one of the state’s most dangerous felons. She’s in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, denied all contact with her children. Unless she can somehow convince the courts she’s innocent, and by extension that Phoenix prosecutors are responsible for a grievous miscarriage of justice, she could become the first Australian woman in U.S. history to be executed.
“It doesn’t feel real. It feels shocking. I’m gutted for my kids. I’m devastated for my family,” Lisa, 43, tells me from the maximum-security wing of Estrella Women’s Jail, a desert compound just outside Phoenix.
This is the first time Lisa has spoken publicly since she and her husband, Germayne, were arrested in September and charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors allege they are responsible for the cruel neglect and abuse of Germayne’s daughter – Lisa’s step-daughter – seven-year-old Sanaa. The prosecution facts make for tough reading. They say the little girl was placed in a straightjacket, restrained with zip ties and handcuffs, and neglected to the point where serious wounds – including a bone deep cut on her foot – were not properly treated.
Lisa’s defence? Sanaa was dangerously schizophrenic, she was never zip tied and most importantly, there was never any crime. “You can’t keep having the conversation about this crime and not keep visiting the fact, there was no murder. There was no murder, there was no homicide. She died from pneumonia.”
This is one of those rare cases that could divide a nation. Lisa Cunningham is either a deceptive monster, or an innocent, loving Australian mum facing death by lethal injection in a U.S. state hungry for executions. Her lawyer, Eric Kessler, has tried 20 death penalty cases and says he’s never seen a worse travesty of justice in his career. “Lisa is not a criminal. She’s a loving mum. Australians should be horrified.”
But as you’ll see, this is no simple case.
Lisa Cunningham grew up in working class suburb of Murray Bridge near Adelaide.
Her parents, who battled alcoholism, separated when she was 12. An older brother died of a drug overdose and Lisa became a carer in effect for her little sister Katie, who had Down Syndrome; Lisa was forced to grow up fast. When she was 24 she met and married a visiting American airman. They moved to Arizona with their daughter, Cierra, and son, Javien.
When the marriage ended, Lisa went to work in an Arizona prison. She met police detective Germayne Cunningham and fell in love. Germayne brought two children of his own into the new relationship, Naraya and her younger sister, Sanaa.
“What my mum and Germayne really had done was they just took two halves of broken families and made a completely new better one,” says Lisa’s oldest daughter, 21-year-old Cierra.
Cierra has put her life on hold to campaign for her mother’s release. As a potential witness, she’s banned from visiting her mother in prison and prohibited from communicating with her at all. With her parents now behind bars, her siblings have also been taken from her, placed into Arizona’s foster care system. She says Phoenix prosecutors have obliterated what was the “perfect family”.
“(Mum) called us her baby chickens, because we’d all follow her in a line,” Cierra says. “She was mama hen and we were her chickens.”
“They’re trying to get a document saying that her days on this planet are numbered. I will not stop fighting until justice for my family has been served.”
Sanaa Cunningham was a very sick little girl. At the age of six, she was diagnosed with acute schizophrenia. Lisa says she and Germayne watched a happy, healthy, normal little girl slowly slipped away. They say Sanaa began injuring herself, scratching at her skin, gouging at her eyes. Even hearing voices urging her to kill.
Eric Kessler, Lisa’s lawyer, tells me Sanaa would defecate throughout the house and smear it. She would spin on her knees in circles, tearing the skin off her knees and legs. She once tried to harm the family dog.
“For 10 months, the state of Arizona was in our house watching her decline,” Lisa says.
Lisa and Germayne decided to pull the little girl out of her Phoenix school, to home-school her. But Sanaa’s condition continued to deteriorate. Eventually they visit a psychologist who prescribes Sanaa a powerful, adult antipsychotic, called Risperdal – known to have side effects like pneumonia, and worse. “Keep going Lisa, don’t give up, find treatment, find the right doctor, it’s going to happen, you guys are going to bring this little girl back,” Lisa says she was told.
But as Sanaa’s health went from bad to worse, there were suspicions in the neighbourhood about whether Lisa and Germayne were really the loving parents they claimed to be.
On Friday, February 10, 2017, Lisa Cunningham found Sanaa limp against her playpen inside her home in suburban Phoenix. She couldn’t open her eyes. She drooled. They called Sanaa’s doctor – the same doctor who had prescribed a powerful adult antipsychotic. Staff advised Sanaa’s parents to monitor her, and bring her in on Monday. The next day, Sanaa became catatonic. Her body was cold to the touch. Lisa Cunningham couldn’t get a reading from the thermometer, so she surrounded her step-daughter with warm bottles of water.
Lisa took Sanaa to urgent care, then to hospital. Hours later, around 5am on Sunday, February 12, she died.
At first, there was nothing suspicious. An autopsy found the little girl had dozens of scratches and injuries from her feet, to her head, but the Cunninghams said these were self-inflicted and a result of the schizophrenia. The coroner found the likely cause of death to be sepsis – a blood infection – and pneumonia (a side effect of Risperdal). But acting on a number of complaints, police would eventually take a closer look at what life was like inside the Cunningham family home. And they would ask three key questions – was Sanaa being neglected, was she receiving the best possible care, and did her parents act quickly enough when they realised she was gravely ill?
The prosecution facts, obtained by Sunday Night, allege that Sanaa effectively lived in a house of horrors for two years before she died. Was this little girl becoming too much of a financial and emotion burden? Is it possible Lisa and Germayne made the decision that it may just be easier to let her go?
“I think that’s a horrific thing to say to parents, I think that’s unfair, I think it’s cruel and I think it’s a disgrace for her memory, for her to be remembered as a victim and not somebody who was mentally ill.”
Arizona prosecutors have asked for the death penalty for both Lisa and Germayne Cunningham. It’s rare for them to push for capital punishment unless they think it’s a realistic chance of being achieved. But there’s a long way to go yet: first, a jury must find them guilty, and then sentence them to death. That won’t happen for at least two years – the trial isn’t set to begin until July, 2020.
If Arizona gets its way, Lisa Cunningham would become the first Australian woman in U.S. history to be put to death. I visited the desert outpost where the execution would be carried out, Florence State Prison, in a place colloquially known as Death Town. There have been 14 executions by lethal injection at Florence since 2010. 123 inmates are right now eking out their final days on death row, awaiting their last meal. Only three of them are women.
I was granted extremely rare access inside the prison, escorted through the gates to the compound known as Housing Unit 9, or the death chamber. Inside, prisoners are laid out on a bed with mechanical arms. They are strapped down, before a doctor goes to work. There is a small window to a viewing room – on the other side of the glass, the victims’ family and lawyers watch on. The inmate is given a cocktail of drugs, including a sedative and a narcotic. Essentially, the prisoner is put to sleep, and then suffocates.
The last execution carried out in Arizona was four years ago. To describe the process as botched would be a gross understatement. The prisoner – a murderer named Joseph Wood – took almost two hours to die. It should have taken ten minutes. It should have been one injection – instead it was 15. People in the viewing gallery described hearing him gasping and snorting for air.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery is unrepentant. When I ask him whether the death penalty system in his state is broken, he even floats a possible return to the firing squad.
“The firing squad is just as humane as lethal injection from the standpoint of death occurring rather quickly,” Mr Montgomery says. “There isn’t any prolonged suffering and unlike lethal injection would provide a very distinctive moment in time in carrying out the punishment, where people would recognise this is the moment when the punishment was carried out. So that is one option.”
There is not enough available public evidence to say for sure exactly how or why seven-year-old Sanaa Cunningham died. The prosecution is hinting at damning text messages between Lisa and Germayne. The defence dismisses these rumours, describing this as a monumentally flawed investigation, underpinned by a stunning police failure to properly record Sanaa’s time of death.
What is certain, is that someone failed Sanaa. In the inevitable blame game that is soon to be thrashed out in court, that sad fact must never be forgotten. There are so many unanswered questions. How, in 2018, does a child die from a preventable blood infection and pneumonia? Why was Sanaa prescribed a powerful adult antipsychotic in the first place, and was she properly evaluated? Lisa’s lawyers say the prescribing doctor didn’t evaluate her at all. If true, that doctor should not only be struck off the registry, but possibly indicted himself.
Did the medical community do enough for a child with acute schizophrenia? Did Lisa and Germayne do enough? If Sanaa was as sick as is claimed, why wasn’t she relinquished to the care of an institution, to people properly trained to treat her? Why did authorities take so long to lay charges? Was this a case of preferential treatment for Germayne, a former Phoenix cop? Is this a case of police, prosecutors and child services trying to cover up their own failures? Supporters of the Cunninghams say the state’s murder theory is a house of cards that will rapidly collapse in court. Opponents insist Sanaa’s parents are exactly where they belong, and should pay the ultimate price.
“How realistic do you think the prospect of the death penalty is?” I ask Lisa.
“You know, I think… I think it’s, I think it’s illogical, but do I think illogical things happen? Absolutely.”
Reporter: Matt Doran
Producer: Rebecca Le Tourneau
If you would like to help support Cierra, please visit her GoFundMe page here.
Friend Tami Lynn has also set up a GoFundMe page to assist the family with legal costs. You can find it here.
Discover more about Lisa and Germayne Cunningham’s story, visit Tami’s blog.