Tearfully maintaining her innocence, a Brooklyn Park woman was sentenced to 15 years in prison yesterday for her role in a child abuse and attempted murder case that involved her toddler son.
Margaret Dunnigan, 24, is the third person sentenced in connection with a on July 1, 1989, child abuse case prosecutors have called one of the worst they've seen.
In October, her husband, Bernard Dunnigan, 29, was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and David Robert Pasko, who had agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, was sentenced to five years.
Prosecutors said the three thought Bernard Dunnigan had hit and killed his stepson andattempted to cover it up. The child was immersed in scalding water and placed on a couch. Bernard Dunnigan and Pasko then set fire to thehome.
The boy, Steven Andrew Robinson, now 3, survived but remains hospitalized in a vegetative state with no prospect for recovery.
Margaret Dunnigan pleaded guilty to attempted murder in October, inexchange for a 15-year cap on the sentence prosecutors would recommend. Attempted murder carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
She entered an Alford plea, in which a defendant acknowledges theexistence of enough evidence to convict but does not admit guilt. During her sentencing hearing yesterday, she said she entered the plea only because she had no witnesses to back up her claims of innocence.
"I did not put my son in scalding hot water. I did not hurt my son. It doesn't matter what anyone thinks. The truth will remain. JesusChrist knows I'm innocent," she told Circuit Judge Raymond G. ThiemeJr.
Dunnigan said that she was not present when the crime was committed and that witnesses had lied. She also told the judge she aspires to be a police officer, offering no further explanation for the statement.
"God knows, if I could give my life for my son I'd do it," she said. "I'd do it in a heartbeat. I love my kids. I could never do anything like that."
Court records show her other two children are in foster care.
But Thieme rejected her claims. "I don't know how a mother, after carrying a child for nine months, can accept what happened in this case," he said. "The facts in this case just scream,cry out."
Thieme then announced his sentence. Dunnigan's mother, Stella Marsh, jumped up and shouted, "No! No! My daughter didn't do it, Your Honor."
A sheriff's deputy then led Marsh and Julia Epifanio, Dunnigan's grandmother, from the courtroom.
As the defendant was being led out of the courtroom, she wept and shouted, "Goddamn I didn't do it. I didn't do it!"
Her attorney, Lawrance W. Shavers, said he may seek a reconsideration of the sentence after seeing the results of a planned psychiatrist evaluation of Dunnigan.
Shavers told the court his client had been born with encephalitis and, while not retarded, has only an eighth-grade education and is intellectuallylimited to the point where she can work only for fast-food restaurants.
Prosecutors have said the boy was beaten after breaking a glass figurine and enraging Bernard Dunnigan, who knocked his stepson unconscious. Fearing Steven Andrew might be dead, the Dunnigans and Pasko discussed covering up the incident.
The boy was immersed face-down in scalding water and then placed on a couch while the husband and Pasko bought some gasoline and poured it around the house, in the 900 block Victory Avenue.
Margaret Dunnigan grabbed her other children, but left Steven and Julia Epifanio inside while her husband set the house on fire, prosecutors have said. The grandmother was treatedfor smoke inhalation.
The fire was ruled an arson, but no criminal charges were filed for five months, until a court-appointed attorney for the Dunnigan children visited Steven and noticed the burns appeared to be from immersion and not from fire. That discovery led to criminal charges against the Dunnigans and Pasko.
Court records showthat Pasko, 22, was sentenced to five years for arson and conspiracy.
At a sentencing hearing, Bernard Dunnigan was described as the product of a violent upbringing. Court records show he had been charged earlier in 1989 with striking and choking a 3-year-old. He was found guilty of battery in that case, and Thieme gave him a one-year suspended sentence and five years' probation.