By Jane Musgrave, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
A hearing to determine whether Milagro Cunningham will be spared four life sentences for raping an 8-year-old Lake Worth girl, burying her under 197 pounds of rocks and leaving her for dead was abruptly cancelled on Friday.
Cunningham’s attorney, public defender Tavis Dunnington, filed a motion asking Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Charles Burton to appoint an expert to determine Cunningham’s competency.
“He is intellectually disabled,” Dunnington wrote in a motion filed hours before the hearing was to begin. “(He) appears to not be able to appreciate the charges against him, adequately consult with his counsel regarding his case, nor does he have the ability to testify relevantly.”
During his 2009 trial, Dunnington argued that Cunningham was insane in 2005 when he attacked a family friend and left her for dead in a trash bin. She survived.
The jury rejected his defense and Cunningham was handed four life sentences.
He won the right to have his sentence reviewed earlier this year. Since he was 17 at the time of the attack, the 4th District Court of Appeal said his sentence must be reviewed in light of a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. He is now 26.
In a landmark case, the high court said that because of their immaturity and their propensity for rehabilitation, juveniles should not be sentenced to life without the chance for parole for crimes other than murder. It later followed up on that ruling by saying the same consideration should be given to juveniles who commit murder. Florida abolished parole decades ago.
Since the ruling, judges have reduced life sentences for juveniles. But many have handed the juveniles lengthy sentences, all-but assuring they will die behind bars.
The Florida Legislature in the spring finally addressed the rulings by passing a bill that establishes minimum sentences for juveniles convicted of capital crimes and a system for them the seek release. However, it doesn’t apply to juveniles who were already serving life sentences. How those cases should be handled is currently being reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court.