Lisa Cunningham once stood guard over women convicts. Now the Australian-born woman, who is charged with murdering her stepdaughter in Goodyear, rubs shoulders with the accused during the one hour a day she’s not locked in her segregated cell. She’s had time to rethink the nature of crime and punishment and who administers it.
“I’m housed with people that have similar crimes to me. And I’ll tell you, this is probably the least judgmental environment I’ve even been in,” Cunningham said by phone from Estrella Jail, breaking her silence in a series of jailhouse interviews.
“I hope to God the people in here get an opportunity and the system doesn’t just funnel them through.”
“They are people. People are not what they’ve done,” Cunningham added. “These people are all death penalty. They are forsaken people. And nobody is listening or paying attention, and they are in here literally fighting for their lives.”
Her life, too, is on the line.
Maricopa County prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Lisa Cunningham and 39-year-old Germayne Cunningham, her husband and former Phoenix police detective. Prosecutors have charged them with 10 counts of child abuse and one count of murder.
Cunningham, a 44-year-old mother of six, could become the first Australian woman executed in the United States. Australia hasn’t executed anyone since 1968.
She blames Arizona’s Department of Child Safety for the death of 7-year-old Sanaa Cunningham two years ago, claiming the “vindictive” state agency convinced prosecutors to target her and her husband after the couple threatened to sue.
“This is about a life that was cut short and how the state turned a death into a murder. And why,” Cunningham said. “We fought for 10 months to find out what was wrong. And too many people failed, and misdiagnosed, and didn’t take it seriously.”
She described her confinement as “hard time” in “a hard place,” and said that fighting multiple legal campaigns to clear her name, get her kids back, and hold others accountable for Sanaa’s death has been “terrifying” and left her “gutted.”
Police said in court that the Cunninghams abused Sanaa for almost a year. A homicide detective testified how the couple locked Sanaa in a laundry room, restrained her with plastic ties or a makeshift straitjacket, and left her alone outside in only a diaper.
The couple also failed to properly seek help, police said, after Sanaa slipped into a “zombie-like state,” in which she could barely breathe and when her body temperature plummeted.
The Cunninghams, who met as guards in the state prison system, have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
They always insisted that they had to take drastic measures to stop the severely disturbed girl from harming herself and her younger siblings.
The civil suit claims that around six weeks before the death, DCS case agents advised the Cunninghams that “if they did not place Sanaa on risperidone, or similar medication, the Department of Child Safety would remove not only Sanaa, but all of the Cunninghams' children.”
Risperidone is a powerful anti-psychotic. Sanaa died two days after they cut off the drug because they thought it was making her catatonic.
“The Cunningham family faced a daunting task trying to raise and manage their daughter. The fact that it was beyond their best effort, and that they were failing, would have readily been apparent had supervisors exercised even minimal supervision over the assigned DCS staff,” the lawsuit alleges.
In a recent unsuccessful appellate court filing, the father renewed claims that Sanaa hallucinated, attacked younger siblings, heard voices, scratched her skin raw, and defecated and urinated on the floor. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and pica, which compelled her to eat tainted meat crawling with maggots.
In response, DCS pointed out that it had investigated four separate abuse allegations before Sanaa died. Lawyers for DCS said that six weeks after Sanaa died, her parents refused to cooperate with proposed family services. Instead, police detectives uncovered text messages “that establish culpability of the parents as to the child's death,” DCS claimed in court, adding, “Due to this new information it was imperative” to remove the children.
Lisa Cunningham said their lawyers are preparing another appeal, hoping to gain the couple's release from jail and force a second grand jury to rethink the murder charge. Nothing has been filed in Arizona’s appellate court.
She also said the Australian government has offered to provide legal assistance. Australian media could not confirm the claim.
Events inside and beyond the courtroom have left her shaken, she said.
She said recently she learned somebody had vandalized Sanaa’s gravestone.
“That was devastating to us. I think that shut us down for a week, just to know that somebody did something so violent,” she said.
Since December 10, somebody has started a Facebook page demanding “Justice For Lisa.” She said she knew nothing about the site, adding that she found it unnerving that somebody was posting family photos. It also featured links to the books she wrote on parenting and homeschooling.
In a bizarre twist, the judge presiding over the murder case, Maricopa Superior Court Judge Michael Kemp, also sat in judgment over Lisa Cunningham’s messy divorce in 2013 from Russ Anderson.
But what most bothered her were two actions in court last year, one to split up her family, the other to deny her two eldest children any contact with the family, because they may be witnesses.
“Those kinds of things have been heartbreaking for us,” Cunningham said.
“The things that we have gone through in our lives, to have the family that we had, and to lose one and to be accused of being responsible for it has gutted us,” she said.
“The state gets up there and presents this theory that has nothing to do with why we lost our child,” she continued.
She noted that she heard Sanaa’s biological mother, Sylvia Norwood, sobbing at the evidence.
It “was probably the most terrifying thing I’ve ever been through, because I’m a mother and my kids were in foster care at the time,” Lisa Cunningham said. “And to not know they were safe, not know they were taken care of. To have her sit there and believe the state’s theory and know how malicious it is was absolutely terrible to both of us.”