Plea deal ‘may save life of mother’


The le­gal team work­ing on be­half of an Aus­tralian woman fac­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of the death penalty in the US “be­lieve whole­heart­edly in her in­no­cence” but will seek a plea if nec­es­sary to spare her life.

Michelle McCloskey, a mit­i­ga­tion spe­cial­ist in Phoenix, Ari­zona, said Lisa Cun­ning­ham, nee Tops­field, “has no crim­i­nal history what­so­ever”.

“Peo­ple love her and think very highly of her as a per­son, and as a mother. If Lisa’s case goes to trial, these are strong mit­i­gat­ing fac­tors for the jury to con­sider,” Ms McCloskey said.

“Most cap­i­tal cases never go to trial, thank­fully. The pros­e­cu­tion can drop the death penalty along the way, dis­miss the charges, or the case can be re­solved via a plea agree­ment.”

Ms Cun­ning­ham, who was raised in Ade­laide be­fore mov­ing to the US, was taken into cus­tody three weeks ago af­ter pros­e­cu­tors an­nounced their in­ten­tion to seek the death penalty for the mur­der of her step­daugh­ter, Sanaa.

Seven when she died, Sanaa suf­fered from a range of men­tal, phys­i­cal and be­havioural prob­lems, in­clud­ing schizophre­nia, a rare di­ag­no­sis in chil­dren.

Her par­ents — Ms Cun­ning­ham, her step­mother who had raised Sanaa from in­fancy, and her bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther and Lisa’s hus­band, Ger­mayne Cun­ning­ham — ve­he­mently deny wrong­do­ing, say­ing they were do­ing all they could to stop her from hurt­ing her­self and oth­ers.

Sanaa was some­times kept re­strained with zip ties. She would wear gog­gles to stop her from hurt­ing her own eyes. The cause of her death is un­de­ter­mined on the au­topsy re­port.

Ms Cun­ning­ham, 43, is seek­ing help from the fed­eral At­tor­ney-Gen­eral’s De­part­ment to fight the case.

“Since Lisa is an Aus­tralian cit­i­zen, we are hope­ful that the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment can some­how as­sist in her de­fence,” Ms McCloskey said.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s Se­ri­ous Over­seas Crim­i­nal Mat­ters tra­di­tion­ally pro­vides such as­sis­tance, although Ms Cun­ning­ham has not re­ceived any fi­nan­cial aid.

Ms McCloskey said her role in Ms Cun­ning­ham’s de­fence was to “hu­man­ise” her client in the eyes of the jury.

“Since the pros­e­cu­tion will in­evitably at­tempt to por­tray the de­fen­dant as a mon­ster, we present in­for­ma­tion to the jury that hu­man­ises them,” she said.

Ms McCloskey has been in Aus­tralia col­lect­ing “records per­tain­ing to our de­fen­dant’s ed­u­ca­tion, em­ploy­ment, med­i­cal history … to de­velop the story of the de­fen­dant’s life”.

“Ev­ery in­di­vid­ual I spoke with was co-op­er­a­tive and pro­vided very help­ful in­for­ma­tion for Lisa,’’ she said. “I can tell you that Lisa is adored by ev­ery­one I spoke with … they had noth­ing but pos­i­tive things about her.’’

Ms Cun­ning­ham is at el­e­vated risk of a death sen­tence if found guilty of first-de­gree mur­der be­cause Sanaa was un­der 14 when she died, which is con­sid­ered an “ag­gra­vat­ing fac­tor”.


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