Aussie Madness: Death-Penalty Case in Phoenix Creates a Stir Down Under

Caitlin O’Hara / News Corp Australia
The death-penalty case in Phoenix against Australia native Lisa Cunningham has created a media sensation Down Under.
Headlines scream across Australian tabloids and broadsheets about the lurid tale of the woman from Adelaide who is accused, along with her husband, an ex-Phoenix cop, of murdering his 7-year-old daughter, Sanaa.

“I Really, Truly Believe Lisa is Innocent,” trumpets her hometown paper, The Advertiser.

“Australian Mother’s Text Messages Key to Murder Trial,” says another.

But it was the headline in one of the leading national papers, The Australian, that explains why the plight of Lisa and Germayne Cunningham has caught wildfire down under in the past week:

"Australian Mother Lisa Cunningham Facing Death Row in US for Murder".

The paper assigned one of its top reporters on the case, a woman who’s won the country's most prestigious prizes for investigative reporting twice.

Here in Phoenix, despite shocking allegations that the couple tied up, locked up, and locked out the severely ill child, the case has barely registered in the press. After a brief flurry of coverage when the Arizona Department of Child Safety first unveiled its accusations and a bizarre court hearing in January, all but these pages fell silent.

But in Australia, it isn't just the murder charge that has gripped the nation.

No Australian has been executed in the United States since the California Gold Rush, and no Australian woman has ever received the death penalty in the U.S., several newspapers have reported.

In 1851, a street-justice outfit called the Committee of Vigilance hanged Australian James Stuart at the end of the Market Street Wharf, according to a write-up by the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco.

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
Moreover, the last time Australia executed a convict was in 1968. The federal government abolished the death penalty in 1973. Lisa Cunningham’s home state of South Australia banned executions in 1976.

That’s a far cry from Arizona. Currently, 117 people sit on Arizona’s death row, according to the Arizona Department of Corrections.

The last execution here was of double-murderer Joseph Wood in 2014, who took two hours to die. Since then, executions have been suspended because of concerns about the cocktail of drugs used in lethal injections.

The different attitudes about capital punishment lie at the heart of Australians’ appetite for news about Lisa Cunningham.

“If convicted, Mrs. Cunningham would be the first Australian woman executed anywhere in America,” said Andrew Hough, a senior journalist with The Advertiser, the leading tabloid in Adelaide, pointing out that Cunningham is innocent until proven guilty.

“That is significant, because the Australian government is vehemently opposed to the death penalty,” Hough added, noting the public, across the political spectrum, agrees.

Consequently, the Cunningham case is morphing into a diplomatic and political issue in Australia. The government has a program to provide as much as $500,000, or about $360,000 in U.S. currency, for Australian nationals facing the death penalty abroad.

Australian media report the government have provided that legal aid to a woman accused of trafficking cocaine in Colombia, another woman convicted of smuggling marijuana in Indonesia, a convicted terrorist who trained with the Taliban and met Osama bin Laden, and two people convicted of heroin smuggling in Indonesia in a case made famous as the Bali Nine.

Hough says high-ranking federal officials told him that the Australian government has not decided whether to help Cunningham. He reported the family has yet to apply for legal aid.

Both 39-year-old Germayne Cunningham and 43-year-old Lisa Cunningham pleaded not guilty in the case. They insist that everything they did was to protect Sanaa from herself, from the demons in her head.

The Maricopa County Superior Court has set a tentative trial date for July 2020. As that date nears, or as the possibility of a capital conviction looms, the Australian public may apply political pressure.

Also, the case could “run the risk of creating a diplomatic problem,” Hough said.

Journalists at The Australian declined to comment for this story.

But there are other reasons beyond politics that the Cunningham case has gripped Australia.

As in many countries around the world, U.S. crime shows are popular there.

“A lot of people here are fascinated by the American justice system,” Hough said.

And this case has been unusual from start to finish.

“It’s caught the imagination of the Australian public for a number of reasons,” Hough said. “Any crime involving children and their parents will gain significant attention.”

The high-profile nature of the crime, the fact that the father is a cop, some of the harrowing details of Sanaa’s final months, and the prevalence of family photos all drum up interest, he added.

“It’s unusual, but not unheard of, for a woman to be charged with murder. It’s even rarer for a mother,” Hough noted. “Also there are lot of family dynamics and family politics at play.”

Some of Lisa Cunningham’s family have come forward. Her 21-year-old daughter, Cierra Anderson, who lives in metro Phoenix, is not speaking locally, but has granted interviews to The Australian.

“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,” Anderson told the newspaper. “She tried to kill our dog once with a river rock.”

Other family members have been speaking to The Advertiser.

“This time the Americans got it wrong,” Cunningham’s uncle, 70-year-old Rob Topsfield, told the paper. “I’m really angry with the American judicial system at the moment.”

He’s not alone. Cunningham’s cousin, Donna Roesler, said she’d disgusted and “worried sick angry” by the case.

“I believe the justice system over there is corrupt,” she recently told Phoenix New Times in a telephone interview. “I don’t think she can get a fair trial.”

CORRECTION: The attorney for Cierra Anderson, Lisa Cunnighmam's oldest child, says Anderson does not have an exclusive arrangement to talk to The Australian.