July 2017: Cunningham will be released again in the coming weeks. He has breached his orders several times in the past

 

November 1999

How could a loving father kill his own child?

Lisa Gearing sits on the sofa with her son Jake, who’s almost one, sleeping beside her in his buggy.

On top of the TV there are several colour photographs of baby Steven. Lisa gestures towards them: “When I got pregnant with him my partner Stephen and I were dead chuffed. We’d been trying for a child for a long time.”

She was 17, Stephen Cunningham was 19, and it seemed like a return to the “brilliant” early days of their relationship. They had separated only a few months before, a split caused partly by disappointment at not being able to have a child and partly because Steve had been drinking heavily.

But they got back together and decided to try again and, almost immediately, Lisa found she was expecting. “Steve changed his life.

He more or less stopped drinking,” she said. “He fed Steven, changed his nappies and cared for him a lot when I went to the shops or out with my Mam.”

But, within two months of baby Steven’s birth, Lisa fell pregnant again. “This time it was quite different. When I told Stephen, there was no reaction. That was like a slap in the face.

He didn’t want to talk about it much after that. He wasn’t working and may have worried about how we’d manage. But why didn’t he say?”

She wonders about this, just as she wonders why he didn’t tell her that he had things on his mind and didn’t want to look after the baby on that night last May when Lisa was going down to the bingo hall. “I settled Steven, who was a very easy baby.

He did wake sometimes and cry, but Stephen had always been good at soothing him.”

Soon after 9pm, there was a phone call at the bingo hall from Steve’s father saying the baby had breathing problems.

When Lisa phoned Stephen he was hysterical. “He kept saying ‘the baby’s not breathing… I’ve bruised him trying to resuscitate him’.

Even then he was making up his story.

Then he just shouted ‘the baby’s dead!’.”

They were both taken in for questioning. Lisa was released after a couple of days but Stephen was kept in. He was initially charged with manslaughter after he admitted shaking baby Steven because he was crying.

An autopsy found 47 bruises on the child’s body, two fractured femurs, a liver so badly ruptured it was torn loose, and severe brain damage.

Rather than “shaken”, police believed the baby had been violently battered.

After hearing about the child’s horrendous injuries, the jury found Steven guilty of murder by an 11-to-one majority.

Lisa gave birth to Jake in November. While Stephen was on remand they exchanged letters until Lisa asked him not to write to her any more.

The trial began in January. She went to court every day, hoping to hear something that would help her understand what happened that awful night.

Cunningham was sentenced to life with a minimum of 10 years

She feels nothing but anger and hate towards Stephen. “I’d like to see him hanged,” she says. She knows that one day she will have to tell Jake – who looks “the spit” of his father – exactly what happened to his older brother.

She looks at me with enormous eyes in a face framed by hair cut to half an inch – it was a mane of curls once, but she chopped it off after the murder verdict.

She asks: “How could he kill his own child?”

How indeed. It is the question asked with incredulous horror each time we hear of a father murdering his own child.

And we have heard it chillingly often of late.

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