Nothing Normal: Ex-Cop, Charged With Murder of 7-Year-Old Daughter, Walks Free for Now

Nothing Normal: Ex-Cop, Charged With Murder of 7-Year-Old Daughter, Walks Free for Now
Sean Holstege

click to enlarge Sylvia Norwood, right, wept after Germayne Cunningham, the father of her dead daughter, Sanaa Cunningham, was allowed to go free after arraignment hearing Tuesday. - SEAN HOLSTEGE
Sylvia Norwood, right, wept after Germayne Cunningham, the father of her dead daughter, Sanaa Cunningham, was allowed to go free after arraignment hearing Tuesday.
Sean Holstege
Normally, when the state charges somebody with first-degree murder, they rot in jail for a while awaiting trial.

Not this time.

Normally, when a grand jury clears prosecutors to charge first-degree murder, those prosecutors get an arrest warrant. Not this time.

Normally, when a defendant fails to show up in court, even for a minor offense, the judge issues a bench warrant for the scofflaw’s arrest. Not this time.

Normally, when pathologists suspect a child is murdered, the autopsy spells it out conclusively. Not this time.

But then, nothing about the death of 7-year-old Sanaa Cunningham, the people accused of killing her, nor the case against them, has been normal.

Germayne Cunningham, a 38-year-old former Phoenix cop and state prison guard, stands accused of one count of first-degree murder and 10 counts of felony child abuse, following Sanaa’s death in February. His 42-year-old Australian wife, Lisa Cunningham, faces the same charges. But neither has been formally arrested.

Tuesday both were due in Maricopa County Superior Court for an arraignment, a routine five-minute hearing to enter a not-guilty plea and to determine whether to hold or release the suspects.

Except Germayne Cunningham showed up late, and his wife not at all. Attorneys explained that Germayne took his wife to the hospital before the 8:30 a.m. hearing after she complained she couldn’t breathe.

Nobody could verify which hospital at what time.

Prosecutor Joshua Clark urged the judge throw Germayne Cunningham in jail on $1 million bond and issue an immediate arrest warrant for Lisa Cunningham. The chances either might flee were “huge,” he argued.

Defense attorneys had told the court that Germayne Cunningham has cooperated completely with four police and child welfare investigations, had been pilloried by the media, and wants to vigorously defend his innocence.

They said no lawyer had been assigned to defend Lisa Cunningham yet.

The judge sided with the public defenders. He let Germayne Cunningham walk free with a tracking device, and postponed his wife’s hearing two weeks.

Outside the courtroom, Sanaa’s mother, Sylvia Norwood, wept. Her relatives and friends wore glum expressions. They let the family attorney speak for them.

“We are disappointed they weren’t taken into custody, but we respect the court’s decision,” Quacy Smith said. “It’s frustrating for the family. This adds to their tears. This adds to their hurt. It’s unimaginable.”

He said that in 20 years as a cop and then a lawyer he’d never seen a murder case handled in this way.

“I see some passes a regular person wouldn’t get,” Smith said. “As a former police officer myself, I hate to say it, but the whole process is tainted because he’s a police officer.”

One of those passes: The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office never sought an arrest warrant.

click to enlarge Quacy Smith is representing the family of the murdered little girl. - SEAN HOLSTEGE
Quacy Smith is representing the family of the murdered little girl.
Sean Holstege
But there is much more to this case. It’s unusual in many other ways.

Very little information has been released.

Prosecutors convinced the court to seal the police document that spells out the rationale for charging a crime. This is a routine public record, usually made available within days of an arrest or indictment.

The Goodyear Police have yet to release its police report on Sanaa’s death.

The state Department of Child Safety has not released any of four investigations of Sanaa’s treatment inside the Goodyear home.

All are significant because Sanaa died in February, after DCS investigated three allegations of abuse at the hands of the Cunninghams.

The first, alleging neglect, was launched on March 4, 2016. Child welfare agents ruled it “unsubstantiated” and closed the case. An October 27, 2016, allegation of sexual abuse remained open but was also ruled “unsubstantiated.” On December 21, 2016, state investigators opened up the third case, looking into allegations of neglect and abuse. It remained open when Sanaa died, and her death opened a fourth DCS case.

But DCS didn’t report the death until December 12, exactly 10 months after she died, and two weeks after the state determined it was caused by abuse or neglect and a grand jury handed up an indictment.

It and the autopsy read like a horror.

Prosecutors allege the couple tied up Sanaa and left her to sleep outside, confined to a laundry room, garage or patio, with injuries that festered.

The autopsy noted scars on at least 60 locations on Sanaa’s body, about more than 100 cuts and bruises. She had multiple ulcers and abscesses on her nose, hands, legs, and feet.

She died of septic shock, caused by a complication from bronchitis and pneumonia, the Maricopa County
Medical Examiner’s Office ruled in October. The official report states the manner of death was “undetermined” and how the injuries occurred “unknown.”

Forensic experts, in other words, did not medically rule it a homicide.

They noted there were no signs of sexual abuse.

And they noted Sanaa had “a complicated medical history.” It took them five pages to summarize that history.

It involved diagnoses of severe mental illness: unspecified schizophrenia, pica, mood disorders, and conditions that led her to urinate and defecate uncontrollably.

She had a history of scratching, biting, and hitting herself. She would binge and purge food. Sometimes she would eat paper or the hair from her dolls.

According to the autopsy, Sanaa slept in a locked laundry room to protect her from herself on a lawn chair. She would stay there naked, or in an oversize shirt, whose arms were tied like the straitjackets they used to use in old-time insane asylums. A camera watched her. Sometimes she wore a diaper, had gloves taped to her hands, and goggles put on her face.

Goodyear police told pathologists that Germayne Cunningham acknowledged using zip-ties and handcuffs to restrain his daughter. Police had been to the house on December 21, 2016, but saw no reason to further investigate.

The Cunninghams reported many of Sanaa’s maladies to medical and psychiatric experts. Germayne’s defense attorneys said he’d tapped out his retirement in part to care for his daughter.

Sanaa was unusually sick. In isolation, her illnesses are rare. Almost nobody — fewer than 1 percent of diagnosed cases — experiences the onset of schizophrenia before their teen years. Taken together, the depth of Sanaa’s disorders is almost unheard of.

And even though a crime has been alleged, medical experts seemed less convinced.

“It is unclear if the scars, blunt-force injuries, and healing wounds and ulcerations are the result of self-harming behaviors, inflicted injuries/restraint, or a combination of both,” the autopsy concluded.

Lisa Cunningham returns to court on January 16 for her do-over arraignment. Germayne Cunningham was ordered to return for a pretrial hearing on Valentine’s Day.

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Sean Holstege is a freelance reporter with a 30-year career in print news. He was an investigative reporter at The Arizona Republic and the Oakland Tribune. He won a Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting. He’s covered transportation, terrorism, the border, disasters, child welfare, courts, and breaking news.
Contact: Sean Holstege