Couple are jailed after blaze that killed son

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The Independent Online
A couple who started a fire which killed their 21-month-old son were both jailed yesterday. The blaze also seriously injured their second child, a baby boy.

Michael Cunningham, 27, was sentenced to seven years and his girlfriend, Amanda McKenna, 20, to five years after they admitted the manslaughter of their son Jim. Cunningham also received four years and McKenna three years, to run concurrently, for causing grievous bodily harm to the other child, six-month-old Billy.

Leeds Crown Court heard that Cunningham, classed as mildly mentally handicapped, and McKenna, who also has a very low IQ, started fires at houses they occupied in South Parkway, Seacroft, Leeds, to get compensation to pay off debts, some the result of gambling.

The final fire, on 2 October 1994, got out of hand and the couple jumped out of a bedroom window, leaving their children behind. Both boys were rescued by a fireman, but Jim died 10 days later after suffering 60 per cent burns.

Billy survived, but is now believed to have brain damage. He is in long- term foster care with his baby sister, Mandy, born while McKenna was on remand. The couple finally confessed to the fires in police interviews, but initially pleaded not guilty in court.

The pair only changed their pleas on Monday, the fourth day of the trial. Cunningham had told police: "My intention when I lit that match was to get the kids out. It caught up too quickly. I didn't want to leave them, but it was an accident."

At first, the couple blamed the fires on a vendetta against them because they were Irish. McKenna even wrote a series of notes containing threats.

James Stewart QC, defending Cunningham, said if the couple had not received pounds 1,000 in compensation from the DSS after starting a fire in February 1994, the tragedy may not have happened. He said: "Two wholly inadequate people got completely out of their depth. Neither of them was bright enough to appreciate the extent of the risk. The last thing they wanted was for their children to be hurt, let alone killed."

Brian Walsh QC, defending McKenna, said she had experienced a wretched life and had been pregnant six times by the time she was 20.

He added: "The effects upon her of all this have been devastating."

Mr Justice Kennedy said McKenna would receive a shorter sentence because she was so young and had lost her children.