CHICAGO (CBS) — JoAnn Cunningham, the 37-year-old mother of a five-year-old murdered last year will learn soon learn her sentence.
Cunningham pleaded guilty last December to first-degree murder in AJ’s death. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors dropped all other charges against her, including language that called the crime “brutal and heinous.” Prosecutors said she will not be eligible for parole, and must serve her entire sentence. The plea also allows her to avoid a life sentence.
Court has recessed for the day. Proceedings and sentencing is set for Friday afternoon.
JoAnn Cunningham addresses the court. Through tears, she read a statement that said her children are her whole world. “I got the privilege of having AJ as a son. I love him. I miss him. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to to bring him back. My children are the greatest gifts God could have ever given me. They’re my whole world. The reason I breathe. Anyone who truly knows me can say how much I love being a mother, more than anything in the world. My children gave me a singleness of purpose. A love and a joy that can never be replaced. My heart belongs entirely to them. Although my children are sacred most precious treasures. I missed all of them so much. Words can I describe it.”
Cunningham continued describing the child’s future plans when he grew up and what AJ enjoyed.
“He is brilliant. Handsome funny, loving, special beautiful courageous driven talented absolutely love. AJ carried a briefcase around every day because he was going to be a lawyer. He also wanted to be a garbage man gas station attendant factor and to work at the local doughnut shop. And he was convinced along with all of us that he could be anything he wanted to be. His favorite doughnut is chocolate sprinkles. His favorite color is green.”
As she addressed the judge, Cunningham wiped away tears and asked for lenience because she too came from an abusive background that involved drugs.
“I’ve always felt abandoned unloved significant forgotten and rejected. I’ve been mentally and physically abused, without a single moment of encouragement, which slowly drained my heart of joy and peace. We all thirst for love others. I’ve always been made out to be society’s throwaways or outcast. I spent the majority of my life on autopilot hanging out by a thread.”
Cunningham added that she will “try to rise above human scoring and judgment” but asked for help, not punishment.
“I know that God will never impose on me anything that I cannot bear. We’re all equal in God’s sight. We all have done nothing to deserve God’s love. But he loves us.”
“As much as I deserve punishment. I believe I deserve help. Please help me,” Cunningham said. She admitted she’ll never escape the tragic circumstances she put AJ in, she asked for forgiveness.
“Not only do I ask for mercy. I asked you to not overlook all the good I have done. I need all the support love and guidance I can get. The poison of hate does not solve anything. I want my children to be proud of me.”
Court resume with prosecuting attorney Patrick Kenneally describing AJ’s final moments and how was brutally murder.
“He lived his life in the shadow of her darkness, the dystopian world but your mother hates you, scapegoating minor infractions, locks you when you’re wrong so that your childish exuberance doesn’t get in the way of her benzo amphetamine and opioid use confusing and baffling world,” Kenneally said.
“The boy locked in his room. He’s getting in the way of her benzo amphetamine and opioid abuse and her new life with drug-addicted face-tattooed boyfriend. They bury him in a shallow grave. I mean, my God. To try to understand this, you got to do a couple things. The first thing that you need to do judge is you need to completely suspend your humanity, any sense of humanity, you just need to push it aside.
“The second thing you need to do is you need to appropriately prioritize for self love, you have to ask yourself what’s best for JoAnn. And then watch through the tears. She hasn’t been sitting here, crying for AJ. She’s been sitting here, crying for herself. It’s evil.
It’s evil and trying to understand evil, showing tolerance in the face of this type of evil only begets more evil. Taking into account all of the evidence, if ever there was a case that demanded the most forceful and maximum response not only based on the nature of the case, but their own expert witness saying that she’s going to continue to be a danger for the rest of her life. It’s for this case for the reasons stated, and to deter other people from committing the same offense grasping for 60 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections.”
Court takes a 10 minute recess.
A clinical psychologist, Robert Meyer, takes the stand for the defense. He completed a psychological evaluation on Cunningham in January of 2020. He met with her three times in the examination room of the McHenry County jail, about an hour for each visit.
Meyer said the purpose of the interviews was to determine what would compel someone to commit the act of murder. It’s defined filicide, the murdering of a child by a mother. Meyer said there are several types of filicide. Hers would fall under the pattern of abuse over time.
The psychologist said in terms of the typology, the child was born addicted to opiates and there was abuse throughout the life of the child. I think there’s the explanation of her early childhood experiences of trauma in her life.
The ACE instrument, (Adverse Childhood Experience) inventory was used to examine Cunningham. She had close to having a 10 out of 10. When she was a teen, Cunningham had a suicide attempt, she was raped in the eighth grade. She became pregnant at 15. The one person she clung to, her brother, died of an overdose. It was considered a suicide.
The psychologist said Cunningham said abuse came from her first husband. That person broke her ankle. She was then prescribed opioids and became addicted to them.
During the divorce proceedings, as she was upset in the courthouse, an attorney approached her and offered his professional assistance. That was Andrew Freund.
He too was using drugs. Meyer said his intentions were not completely altruistic. Their relationship soon became physical and their relationship revolved around drugs.
Meyer said the character of her personality is quite disturbed. There’s an underlying rage. She was in jail for 30 days related to her divorce. While in jail, Cunningham said a female inmate introduced her to heroin. At the time she was using Xanax and Adderall. She may have started using those drugs by 2012.
The use of Adderall contributed to her rage and anger. Meyer said her substance abuse led to “this extreme violent episode.”
Meyer said his expert opinion, Cunningham meets the diagnosis of child abuse and neglect. She has a cluster b personality disorder, includes anti social, narcissistic, people who have impulse control problems. she meets stimulus abuse disorder.
“These things contributed to her inability to function in a normal way,” Meyer said.
During cross examination, Cunningham’s interview was brought up where she denied being sexually abused. That different than what she told the psychologist.
Cunningham told Meyer that AJ was a difficult child. That he’d steal money, break stuff, sneak out of his room. She did not blame herself for his behavior. Nor did she have anything positive to say about AJ. Meyer admitted not speaking to her doctor about her Adderall use and abuse of the drug. Cunningham said her Adderall addiction began in December of 2017, according to what she told Meyer. But she may have abusing drugs long before then.
When asked if he had read her divorce finding, which accused of physical violence, Meyer said he had not. When asked why she wanted to family was Daniel Nowicki. She stated “I don’t know why. Probably because of the drugs.” When asked why she began sleeping with Freund, though she was disgusted by his by his request, she said probably because of drugs.
Meyer admitted he had not spoken to anybody from her family.
He added “I came here just to testify as the underlying personality which is a cluster B which would, in and of itself suggests she’s manipulative lying person, that she has trouble being honest, straightforward or trusting me or anyone else. It confirms the underlying problem, such as what this disturbed extremely disturbed personality and in the particular case with AJ that take being taken away right at birth. She had trouble with attachment anyways, and the bonding between a mother and child, in my opinion, was just disruptive even more.”
Presented was a phone call between Cunningham and CBS 2 reporter Brad Edwards. She admitted that she had admonished the child for urinating his bed. When Edwards asked how innocence could be proven, Cunningham said DNA. She discounted the condition of her home, saying what she’s accused of is a lie. She said she doesn’t care about a (possible) civil suit. Cunningham said she’d rather kill herself than hurt her family.
Court is back in session. A forensic pathologist has taken the stand. He performed the autopsy of AJ. He described “a number” of small circular abrasions on his face and head. The abrasions match a shower head pictured. On the left side of his face, a number of red abrasions from the forehead to the side of the head to the back of the head. AJ has an indentation on the back of his head, it looks like it happened after he died. The pathologist said AJ’s head was swollen.
On AJ’s, there are multiple abrasions along his face and jawline. At least a dozen blow but it’s difficult to say because some injuries overlapped. Potential dozens. “He has lots of bruises all over his head and a fair amount of force is required to do that.” On the inside of his mouth, his lips are swollen and bruised, according to the pathologist. He said the injuries are consistent with blunt force trauma.
The pathologist said on the back of AJ’s body there are multiple abrasions and red bruising on the buttocks, coming from blunt forced trauma. In examining AJ’s lungs, there were “leopard spots” indicating inhaled blood coming into the lungs. There was bleeding below the skin. He had massive trauma on his head. His brain was massively swollen. So swollen that part of the brain was trying move itself through a skull. And that’s actually what causes death. The brain moves around in the skull and can hit the inside of the skull.
The pathologist said “he’s received multiple injuries to his brain. He’s received multiple injuries to his head. His brain is swelling. He’s inhaling blood. His brain swelling or his brain is slowing so much that it’s actually starting to crash itself against the skull, because it has no place to go. And because it’s crushing itself inside the vitals breathing heart, all the different organs. Slowly but surely shut down. And then, death occurs.
When asked if it was the worst case of child abuse he had seen, the pathologist said “it’s a pretty bad case. Not the worse one I’ve seen, but pretty bad.”
Court is in recess. Will resume at 1:15 p.m.
Chief James Black of the Crystal Lake Police Department takes the stand. He said the investigation lasted six days. 1,032 straight time hours were spent with cost of over $48,000. About 230 overtime hours were spent at a cost of $15,600.
Another Crystal Lake officer takes the stand. He said he was there to assist in the search for AJ on April 18. At least 20 people showed up to help in the search, several were from different law enforcement officers from neighboring municipalities. Three drones were used in the search. He said the FBI was called in to search, at least 20 FBI officers assigned for six days. The FBI assisted with organizing incoming information, leads, etc.
The search was still taking place on April 22. About 30 people from the McHenry County EMA arrived to assist in the search. Illinois State Police had a plane up to help in the search. The officer said during the first six days people were working 24 hours a day in the search.
Another Crystal Lake detective takes the stand. He said he arrived at 6:30 on April 20. A small vigil was taking place. Freund arrived alone. Cunningham arrive around 6:45. They shared a quick hug and separated. The detective said police followed Freund to keep an eye on the families.
Video is shown of Cunningham being questioned in a small room with police about last seeing AJ. Cunningham said she couldn’t remember what sneakers he was wearing or whether a hoodie. She starts to cry saying “he’s got to be so scared and he thinks he’s going to get in trouble.” The officer said you had absolutely nothing to do with this. Cunningham said “absolutely not.”
Text messages were released between Cunningham and Nowicki while he was incarcerated. The message read “AJ is playing hide and seek with me, we can’t find him. But I will be there. But if I don’t find them in the next few minutes I’m calling the police.” AJ was already dead at this point.
A Crystal Lake detective takes the stand confirming text messages between Cunningham and Freund sent between April 16 and April 18, 2019. Cunningham messages to him about getting AJ help and “God is good.” AJ had already been dead at this point. The texts on April 16 have Cunningham describing the kids painting Easter eggs. She said AJ was sent to his room because he lied about breaking a cup.
On April 17, Freund sent a text message that read “have a great and blessed day give the boys a hug and kiss for me.” Cunningham asked Freund to get a couple of TVs so she and the boys could watch movies in her room together.
On April 18, Cunningham sent a text message to Freund saying “please also check the gas station. That’s the only other place I can think of that you would know. Please please ask them. I looked everywhere in the house” and to tell him to come out and that he’s not going to get in trouble.
The court plays a phone call between Cunningham and her boyfriend Daniel Nowicki on April 16. He was incarcerated at the time and AJ was already deceased. She said she had been looking into child psychologists for AJ. Because Cunningham said that at times he acts out.
After the officer searched the house, the officer said he saw Cunningham outside and saw her laughing with a friend but didn’t know what they were talking about.
Identifying pictures of AJ’s room, there was a hole in the roof. There is a padlock on the outside of AJ’s closet. The window in the child’s room appeared to be broken. There was a hook on the window that prevented it from being open.
The officer is asked to identify photos taken at the home. Piles of garbage are seen next to a backyard fence. A bag of syringes is also seen. There are photographs of the inside of the home showing clutter; clothes, shoes and garbage throughout the house. The officer said he was overwhelmed with how it smelled and the condition of the house. The officer added that he tried to get into lower level cupboard, to see if the child was hiding. He said it was difficult to get through because of the clutter in the area.
Asked to describe what he saw, the officer said “in one word filth.” The officer said he saw tons of mice droppings. There was garbage and debris throughout the house. In the room of AJ’s father’s room, Andrew Freund, there was a milk jug with a funnel with a yellow fluid. The officer couldn’t confirm if it was in fact urine.
Taking the stand, a Crystal Lake officer who was dispatched to AJ’s home after a call for a missing child. The parents said they saw the child in bed at 9:30. The officer said Cunningham became aware of AJ’s disappearance after she woke up after 7:00 a.m. Police asked to search the home to make sure the child wasn’t hiding.
The officer entered the side door and had “sensory overload.” Said he saw filth, stale food left out and there was a faint smell of urine. He said he wasn’t expecting what he saw.
Court is back in session. Taking the stand is a neonatologist present at AJ’s birth in 2013. The doctor said the baby tested positive for opiates, specifically heroin. He said the baby was treated with morphine to “calm” the baby as it goes through withdrawal symptoms. He was given morphine for more than a month after birth.
Judge announces a short recess.
As the video plays, Cunningham wipes her nose several times, balling up tissues at her table as she fidgets with the tissues. Cunningham accuses AJ of trying to manipulate his father against her. Asking him if AJ thinks his dad is a pushover. AJ says in a quivering voice no. She yells back “nothing is going happen. Ever!”
In another video, Cunningham is heard questioning AJ, beratting him asking him to answer her questions. At one point she asks about his “fake ass bull****.” When she yells at him to answer a question about other people being around he said “so I don’t ever have to see you again.” AJ added that he wants to be alone.
The court is playing video found on Cunningham’s computer. The video is not being shown, but the audio is played. She accuses him of wetting his pants. “That’s f****** piss,” said Cunningham. As the video is played, Cunningham looks down and fidgets with her hands.
Cunningham, in an orange jumpsuit and light yellow face mask is staring straight ahead with her hands clasped in front of her.
An emergency room physician takes the stand. In December 2018 AJ went to the emergency room at Northwestern Memorial in McHenry County. According to the doctor, Cunningham wanted to make sure AJ would be able to go home with her. The doctor saw that AJ had several bruises on his body. There were three injuries to AJ, including a large bruise on the boy’s right hip. According to the doctor, Cunningham wasn’t sure how the bruises got on AJ. That he was possibly “rough housing” with his brother or that the dog may have been involved.
When the doctor asked AJ how he got hurt, he said it wasn’t someone in his family and that it wasn’t his mother.
When the officer said she asked Cunningham about a large purple-colored bruise on AJ’s body, she motioned to AJ that the dog Lucy had done it and AJ agreed.
First person to take the stand is a Crystal Lake police officer who saw Cunningham in 2018 in a fast food parking lot and she said someone had broken into her home. The officer then followed Cunningham to her home. The officer said it looked like they lived in squalor. She saw AJ had bruises on him and took pictures of the child. “It was not good,” said the officer, noting that she saw a hole in the ceiling and that the linoleum floor had been torn up. It smelled horrific.”
Court is now in session. Judge Wilbrandt is laying out rules for social distancing in the courtroom. Everyone is wearing masks.
On Thursday, she’ll appear at the McHenry County Courthouse in Woodstock, Illinois. The courtroom is expected to have social distancing measures in place for those watching the proceedings. McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt is expected to issue the sentence.
AJ’s disappearance gripped the nation when he was reported missing by his father on April 18, 2019. The senior Freund led investigators to AJ’s body a week later. Buried in a shallow grave in a field in Woodstock, AJ was found to have died from blows to the head.
Cunningham, 37, faces 20 to 60 years in prison.
Three months earlier, before her plea, Cunningham had granted CBS 2 Investigator Brad Edwards the only in-house jail interview:
Edwards: “DCFS paints a horror show of what went on in that house. Was it a horror show, what was going on in that house in the end?”
Cunningham: “No, we were a good, loving family.”
Edwards: “JoAnn, a lot of people are just going to have a hard time believing that.”
Cunningham: “I’m sure they do, but I don’t care what they think.”
In the interview, Cunningham denied that she killed AJ, though she later pleaded guilty.
Cunningham and A.J.’s father, Andrew Freund, were indicted on a combined 61 counts last May, including murder, aggravated battery, and concealing a homicide.
Their son was found beaten to death and buried in a shallow grave in a field in Woodstock in April, about a week after they had reported him missing. An autopsy determined A.J. died of multiple blunt force injuries to his head.
Police and prosecutors say A.J.’s parents forced him into a cold shower as punishment for soiling his clothes and severely beat him on April 15. His father later found him dead in his bed at their home in Crystal Lake and buried him in a shallow grave. A.J.’s parents falsely reported him missing three days later.
For days, the community prayed A.J. was alive. But police found A.J.’s body wrapped in plastic in a shallow grave in Woodstock on April 24 and charged both of his parents with his death.
In 2019, CBS 2 received more than three dozen images taken during police visits to the Crystal Lake home of Andrew Freund and JoAnn Cunningham. The photos show a house in total disarray.