An Illinois woman has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for the tortuous murder of her five-year-old son.
JoAnn Cunningham, 37, pleaded guilty last year to killing AJ Freund.
Cunningham, who has been diagnosed with ‘significant personality dysfunction’ and has a long history of drug abuse, never detailed the circumstances surrounding the child’s death.
But AJ’s father, Drew Freund, 61, told authorities that Cunningham engaged in ‘some hitting’ and the boy was placed in a cold shower until he would admit the truth about hiding his soiled underwear.
JoAnn Cunningham, pictured in court on Friday, has been sentenced to 35 years in prison
Drew Freund, the boy’s father, described how Cunningham had caused AJ’s death
Freund described watching Cunningham question AJ in the shower as ‘she was like taking the spray nozzle thing and putting it like right in his face. Sometimes lose his balance and fall in the tub.’
Cunningham awoke Freund at 3am on April 15, 2019, to tell him AJ, who had been sent to bed earlier, was not breathing.
The couple searched for information on child CPR on Freund’s phone and, after realizing AJ was dead, Freund told Cunningham he would ‘handle it,’ placing AJ’s body in a plastic tote in the basement and burying him days later.
Freund called 911 early April 18, 2019, to report AJ missing.
After a frantic six-day search, his battered remains were unearthed from a shallow grave about seven miles from his home in Woodstock.
Cunningham, pictured at the time of her arrest last spring by Illinois police
Cunningham pleaded for help finding the boy the day after he was reported missing.
Freund was also charged with first-degree murder, has pleaded not guilty. He is due in court at the end of the month.
Sentencing Cunningham on Friday, Judge Robert Wilbrandt told her that her actions were ‘inhumane, repulsive and, frankly, shocking.’
He said she lied, cheated and manipulated her way through life while ‘terrorizing her small son.’
A forensic pathologist who conducted the child’s autopsy described fatal head injuries and cuts and bruises across his entire body and limbs.
Tributes to murdered 5-year-old boy AJ Freund outside his family home in Crystal Lake, Illinois
AJ, five, suffered a painful death at the hands of his mother in April 2019
AJ inhaled his own blood before his painful death and had small, circular marks on his forehead consistent with the pattern of a detachable shower head.
‘It’s a pretty bad case,’ testified Dr Mark Witeck, who estimated he has conducted some 7,000 autopsies throughout his career.
‘Not the worse one I’ve seen but very bad.’
Cunningham was known to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services long before AJ’s fatal beating, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The case became emblematic of the systemic failures of the social services.
A 2019 review by the paper found evidence of 10 hotline calls since 2012 regarding her care of children — including her firstborn son and a foster son she raised for a short time — from police, hospital staff, neighbors and even her own mother.
Four of the 10 calls were before AJ was born.
Cunningham, with her attorney George Killis, pleaded on April 19, 2019 for help finding him
‘It was a horrible death, preceded by a horrible life,’ said Judge Wilbrandt.
He added: ‘Ms Cunningham was responsible for that life and now she must be responsible for his death.’
The judge spared her the maximum 60 year sentence.
AJ’s family said they were disappointed at the sentence.
‘We know that whatever the punishment, it will not ease the loss and pain we feel,’ the statement said.
‘AJ was an innocent, precious little boy whose life was taken from him after he endured, what we now know, was much pain and suffering.
‘We had expected JoAnn would pay for that by spending her natural life in prison.’
Cunningham has two other sons, 20 and 5, and a nearly 14-month-old daughter.
‘I’ve always felt abandoned, unloved, insignificant, forgotten and rejected,’ Cunningham told the judge on Thursday.
‘I’ve been mentally and physically abused, all without a single moment of encouragement, which slowly drained my heart of joy and peace.’
She tearfully described herself as someone who was viewed as a throwaway in society or an outcast, spending her life on ‘autopilot, hanging on by a thread.’
‘Nobody will ever understand unless they’ve walked in my shoes or know the torment I’ve suffered,’ she said.
‘And I will try to rise above human scorn and judgment. I never thought of my own well-being and even if I did, I couldn’t help myself. I was mentally unavailable even to myself.
‘Unfortunately, I managed to dispel my anxiety, depression and pain with drugs.’
Of the son she murdered, stopping short of apologizing, Cunningham said she loves and misses him. The mother said she is working to be a better person.
‘I want my children to be proud of me,’ she said.