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”.