UPDATE: Hearing Continued to Determine if Ex-Phoenix Cop to Face Death Penalty

UPDATE: Hearing Continued to Determine if Ex-Phoenix Cop to Face Death Penalty
Courtesy Sylvia Norwood
click to enlarge Sanaa Cunningham, who died at age 7. - COURTESY OF SYLVIA NORWOOD
Sanaa Cunningham, who died at age 7.
Courtesy of Sylvia Norwood

UPDATED, Friday, August 24: A Maricopa County Superior Court judge continued a hearing until Monday to determine if former Phoenix Police officer Germayne Cunningham and his wife, Lisa, are eligible for the death penalty and should be locked up before their trial for the abuse and death of Germayne's 7-year-old daughter.

The full update begins here:

Germayne and Lisa Cunningham sat impassively, listened closely, and took notes as lawyers argued why they should or shouldn’t be eligible for the death penalty and locked up before going to trial.

They are accused of murdering and abusing their 7-year-old daughter Sanaa in February 2017.

A hearing Friday that was scheduled for 30 minutes took two hours, and still was unresolved when it ended.

The hearing resumes Monday, as Goodyear police detective Noah Yeo wraps up his testimony.

On Friday, he spent half an hour testifying about the horrific conditions of Sanaa’s last year of life and on what led to her death. He told the judge that the girl died of septic shock and couldn’t get bacteria out of her lungs because she was tied up. At the autopsy, Yeo testified, Sanaa was covered from her toes to her head in scars.

But defense attorneys prodded Yeo to confirm the autopsy never concluded Sanaa died as a result of a homicide, that a report of Lisa Cunningham’s text messages, critical to criminal and medical findings, was riddled with unchecked errors, and that he erroneously told a grand jury than Sanaa died hours earlier than she had in fact. On two occasions, Yeo candidly acknowledged, “that was an oversight on my part.”

A microcosm of the case, should it ever reach trial, it was the most complete public recital of the evidence yet. The case has been marked by gag orders and sealed records.

Lawyers ran out of time Friday to finish the questioning. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Kemp said he was convinced by the evidence that there were grounds to pursue a capital case, which necessitated locking up the couple for the first time.

That prompted a flurry of protest from defense lawyers who said it was unfair to reach that conclusion without all the evidence being presented.

Kemp continued the hearing to Monday. Responding to prosecutors’ concerns that the Cunninghams, who now could face long-term incarceration and the death penalty, were prone to flee, Kemp said, “They’ve appeared at all the hearings. I’m not prepared to take them into custody today.”

“We will finish this hearing (on Monday), I will make my decision then,” Kemp said advising the couple’s lawyers, “They may be prepared to go into custody then.”

After the hearing, Sanaa’s biological mother and Germayne Cunningham’s ex-wife, Sylvia Norwood, sat in stunned silence.

Through parts of the testimony about her girl’s suffering, she had sobbed. Outside the courtroom she was philosophical.

“How do you feel? I’m just waiting for this part to be over. I look forward to Monday, that’s all I can do,” she said.

The original story begins here:

Maricopa County prosecutors will seek the death penalty this morning, Friday, August 24, for a former Phoenix cop and his Australian wife in the abuse and death of his 7-year-old daughter, according to court filings.

Germayne and Lisa Cunningham return to Superior Court to hear potentially fresh evidence that prosecutors say justifies their execution. Prosecutors also will argue the couple should be jailed for the first time, eight months after a grand jury indicted them on 10 counts of child abuse and one of murder of his daughter, Sanaa.

Prosecutors cited state criminal codes, which state that anyone charged with a capital case is ineligible for bail.

The last time the Cunninghams appeared before a judge for a detention hearing, Germayne was late and Lisa missed it altogether.

Ultimately, the judge ordered both free on bond, as long as they wore ankle monitors, didn’t discuss the case with each other, or contact their children.

Germayne, 39, and Lisa, 43, stand accused of horrific crimes. Both have pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Prosecutors alleged in court the couple bound Sanaa with plastic police ties, left her to sleep outside, locked her in a laundry room, garage, or patio, often wearing diapers or a makeshift straitjacket.

They forced Sanaa to rake rocks or pick up dog feces with her bare hands, prosecutors alleged, adding that when she got a cut on her foot that turned septic, they treated it with Neosporin and gauze and never sought medical help.

They did seek medical help, court and autopsy records show, for Sanaa’s numerous, serious and, for her age, rare, mental health conditions. Those included schizophrenia, pica, mood disorders, and conditions that led her to urinate and defecate uncontrollably.

The autopsy took five pages to describe her “complicated medical history.”

It noted at least 60 scars on Sanaa’s body, plus more than 100 cuts and bruises. She had multiple ulcers and abscesses on her nose, hands, legs and feet and died of septic shock. Pathologists could not conclude if the festering wounds, or inadequate treatment of them, directly caused Sanaa’s early death.

The autopsy states the manner of death was "undetermined" and how the injuries occurred "unknown."

The Cunninghams told investigators that everything they did was to protect Sanaa from herself and her siblings. They and court records say Sanaa would bite, scratch, and hit herself. She ate the hair of her dolls.

Overwhelmed, the Cunninghams confined Sanaa because they didn’t know what else to do, they told authorities.

Initially, Goodyear police detectives who went to the house sided with their former colleague. No charges were filed. The Goodyear Police Department was set to release to Phoenix New Times 2,500 pages of police reports from the investigation of Sanaa’s death, but were barred by a court order.

Arizona Department of Child Safety records from three separate investigations were similarly blocked.

State child welfare agents since put their two youngest children in a foster home, while prosecutors alleged in court motions filed this week that Lisa Cunningham violated the conditions of her release. Prosecutors said she texted her 16-year-old son repeatedly and arranged to pick up her 21-year-old daughter from her grandparents’ house without their knowledge and move her into the Cunninghams’ house. The older children are Lisa's from a former marriage. Sanaa is Germayne's daughter from a previous marriage. The two youngest are the Cunninghams' children together.

When pretrial services officers visited the Cunninghams’ home, they were convinced the daughter, Cierra, was living there, prosecutors said in their motion.

They added that Cierra and the boy witnessed Sanaa’s abuse and that the son “made disclosures regarding the abuse he witnessed."

In March, the Cunninghams moved to a new house, three miles from where the boy lives.

Prosecutors alleged the Cunninghams not only violated their release conditions, but also were trying to interfere with witnesses.

“This is a clear attempt to keep a material witness under her control,” prosecutors argued about Cierra’s relocation.

About efforts to contact Lisa’s son, they stated in court records, “These are obvious attempts to access a witness to the crimes with which the defendant is charged.”

Defense lawyers argued that all of the state’s claims are bogus.

The Cunninghams first contacted the son in January, and prosecutors never mentioned it until this week, they said. Nothing in the release order barred them from moving near the grandparents’ house, and state welfare agents had no say over the 21-year-old child. The order to prevent the Cunninghams seeing their children didn’t apply to Cierra because she was not Germayne Cunningham’s daughter, and not a child, they argued.

“There is no evidence that assisting an adult child from leaving her grandparents’ home (even if that were true) amounts to controlling that witness,” defense lawyers argued.

Nor, they said, was there any evidence the Cunninghams talked about the case.

The filed an email written Tuesday by a county probation officer confirming they’d lived up to the terms of their release.

Lisa Cunningham’s attorney filed a sarcastic motion to ask the court not to reject prosecutors’ efforts to jail her.

“The state appears to be arguing that Lisa cannot live with her husband, despite the court’s clear order to the contrary,” defense lawyer Eric Kessler wrote.

He went on to describe the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office pleadings as laden with “purple prose,” with unfounded accusations such as the one saying she “secreted” her daughter away. He added that no first-year law school student would make the arguments to confine his client, adding, “what lawyer would put his neck on the line for the contents of this petition?”
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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