JoAnn Cunningham sentenced. Crystal Lakes, Illinois mother to serve 35 years jail in the beating death of her 5 year old son, Andrew AJ Freund Jr.
Friday’s sentence follows JoAnn Cunningham, 37, pleading guilty last year to killing Andrew ‘AJ’ Freund Jr. The 35 years sentencing was a little over half of the 60 year sentence prosecutors and family had petitioned for.
As part of her sentencing, the mother will be subjected to three years of mandatory supervised release. She will be required to serve her full sentence, the judge ruled. She had been eligible to between to 20 and 60 years jail as part of her partial plea bargain. The mother will be 72 years old before she is eligible for parole.
Cunningham pleaded guilty to only one of the 20 counts she originally faced. That charge included the accusation that she beat her son knowing that her actions could, and did, cause his death.
‘The defendant did not plead guilty to intending to kill her son,’ Judge Robert Wilbrandt said as he read his decision in the courtroom.
Scheme to deflect
Notice of the child’s death came after Cunningham and AJ’s father, Drew Freund, 61, told of their son ‘disappearing’ from their Crystal Lake home in April, 2019. A massive manhunt in the days after led to AJ’s body being body found in a shallow grave in the far northwest Chicago suburb.
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.
AJ’s father, Drew Freund, 61, told authorities Cunningham had engaged in ‘some hitting’ and placing the boy in a cold shower until he would admit the truth about hiding his soiled underwear.
Freund was also charged with first-degree murder, has pleaded not guilty. He is due in court at the end of the month.
The boy’s death was diagnosed to be the result of blunt forced trauma, after it was determined the mother repeatedly striking the child over the head with a metal shower sprinkler.
Sentencing Cunningham on Friday, Judge 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.’
‘I need love not more pain.’
A forensic pathologist who conducted the child’s autopsy described AJ suffering broken ribs and severe swelling of his brain prior to his death. Prosecutors also presented testimony of previous incidents of abuse.
Leading up to his death, AJ inhaled his own blood 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.’
‘I’ve had the privilege of having AJ as a son and when I had him those were the happiest days of my life. I loved him, I miss him and there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do to bring him back,’ Cunningham told the courtroom on Thursday as she pled for mercy. ‘My children are the greatest gift God has ever given me. They are my whole world. The reason they are the reason I breathe. Anyone who truly knows me can say how much I love being a mother, more than anything in the world. Being a mother defines me.’
‘This is something I will never escape from and am impacted forever by my horrendous choices,’ she added. ‘I cannot change the decisions of my past. I ask you to help me put the million scattered pieces of my heart back together. I need love not more pain.’
— WGN TV News (@WGNNews) July 16, 2020
Five year old failed by the system
Cunningham was known to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services long before AJ’s fatal beating, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The case raised questions of how systemic failures within social services failed to preempt the death of the five year old boy.
A 2019 review by the Tribune found evidence of 10 hotline calls since 2012 regarding the mother’s 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.
‘It was a horrible death, preceded by a horrible life,’ said Judge Wilbrandt.
‘Ms Cunningham was responsible for that life and now she must be responsible for his death,’ he added.
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 family said in a released statement.
A throwaway in society
‘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 as she pled for mercy.
‘I’ve been mentally and physically abused, all without a single moment of encouragement, which slowly drained my heart of joy and peace.’
The woman 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.
Freund Sr. is expected to appear in court next on July 30.