A Brooklyn Park man, described as the product of a violent upbringing, who set his house on fire to cover up what he thought was the death of his toddler stepson was sentenced to 15 years in prison yesterday.
Prosecutors have said Bernard Howard "Joseph" Dunnigan immersed the boy in scalding water, left him on a couch and set the family's Brooklyn Park home on fire to try to cover up the boy's apparent beating death. Steven Andrew Robinson, now 3, survived the ordeal but remains hospitalized in a vegetative state with no prospect for recovery.
"To tell the court this is the worst case I've seen in my years as a prosecutor would certainly be an understatement," said Assistant State's Attorney Kathleen Rogers. "(The boy) lies on his bed. He'll never run.
He'll never jump. He'll never play with friends. He's alive only in that he exists."
Dunnigan, 29, pleaded guilty in July to a charge of attempted murder. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of not more than 20 years for Dunnigan, whose 24-year-old wife, Margaret, is scheduled to stand trial for attempted murder next Tuesday.
Although sentencing guidelines called for a term of five to 10 years for Bernard Dunnigan, Rogers asked Circuit Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr. for a 20-year sentence. She cited a lack of remorse in Dunnigan, who had entered an Alford plea, in which a defendant acknowledges the existence of enough evidence to convict him but does not admit guilt.
A report prepared by a state parole and probation agent showed Dunnigan admits to striking the child but denies setting the house on fire. Dunnigan declined the opportunity to speak before being sentenced, and he refused to comment after the hearing.
Assistant Public Defender James D. McCarthy Jr. compared the abuse suffered by the stepson to that experienced by Dunnigan as a child.
At 3, Dunnigan's mother placed his hand in the flame from a gas range, the defense attorney said. His father was serving a jail term for raping Dunnigan's sister when Dunnigan was born, McCarthy told the court. The defense lawyer said his client's behavior could be traced to his difficult childhood.
Court records show Dunnigan had been charged with striking and choking a 3-year-old in January 1989. In that case, he was found guilty of battery in July 1989, and the following September he was given a one-year suspended sentence and placed on five years probation by Judge Thieme.
Court records show Dunnigan and his wife were referred to social workers for counseling and parenting classes, but they resisted these efforts to help them. The parole agent's report said Dunnigan had no history of substance abuse.
During yesterday's hearing, Rogers offered to review the facts of the case, but Judge Thieme told her that wouldn't be necessary.
In previous hearings, prosecutors said that the July 1, 1989, incident began when the boy broke a glass figurine at the family home in the 900 block Victory Avenue in Brooklyn Park. Dunnigan became enraged and struck the child, who hit his head and fell unconscious. Fearing the boy might be dead, prosecutors charge, the Dunnigans and a visiting friend discussed covering up the incident.
According to the prosecutors' account, they filled a bathtub with scalding water and placed the boy face-down in it. After removing the child from the water, they put him on a couch and then Dunnigan and his friend went to a gas station. When they returned, they poured gasoline around a basement door in the rear of the house and set it on fire with the child and his deaf, 65-year-old grandmother inside.
Firefighters who found the child inside said he "felt like he was boiling," but the body was not charred. The grandmother was treated for smoke inhalation and released. Investigators ruled the fire an arson.
Last December, an attorney appointed by the court to represent the interests of the boy and two other Dunnigan children visited the child and noticed that the burns appeared to be from immersion and not from fire. The discovery led to the charges against the Dunnigans and the friend, David Robert Pasko.
Pasko, 22, of Wellsville, Pa., pleaded guilty in March to arson.
Prosecutors did not seek an indictment for attempted murder against Pasko in exchange for his agreeing to testify against the Dunnigans. He has not been sentenced.
Assistant State's Attorney Cynthia M. Ferris said Margaret Dunnigan has been offered the same sentencing deal as her husband. Court records show her children are in foster care.