CHICAGO (CBS) —  The mother who killed her boy in 2019 will spend 35 years in prison for the murder of five-year-old AJ Freund.

Judge Robert Wilbrandt sentenced 37-year-old JoAnn Cunningham. Prosecutors pushed for the maximum sentence of 60 years. She has served a little more than a year behind bars. Cunningham was also sentenced to three years of court ordered supervision after her release.

“It was horrible death preceded by a horrible life,” said the judge.

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.

In opening remarks, Judge Wilbrandt admitted Cunningham lived a troubled life.

“Miss Cunningham’s brother suffered from mental health and substance abuse issues and committed suicide in 2001. The defendant herself dropped out of school in a 10th grade. And shortly thereafter, she left her family home with a series of male friends. Upon reviewing her history, and her psychological status, there is no question that she is led a difficult life and made a series of poor choices,” Wilbrant said.

But the judge added that AJ suffered a cruel death and the sentence should serve as a deterrent for anyone who might do the same to another child.

 

“We all hope that through examining the history and the missed signals involved in this case, that other young boys and girls might somehow be spared this horrifying result,” Wilbrant said. “The heartbreaking story of five-year-old AJ Freund has spurred our community to seek new ideas and look for new ways to prevent similar abuse in the future. And this court can only hope that such efforts will ultimately be successful. And that children now and in years to come can be spared that disastrous life that befell AJ. Miss Cunningham was responsible for that life. And now she must be responsible for his death.”

Cunningham stared straight ahead as the judge read the sentence, but several people in the courtroom could be seen shaking their heads in disbelief.

(Credit: CBS)

After Cunningham’s sentencing, supporters of AJ came out. One of them, Tracy Kotzman, who spoke to CBS 2’s Tim McNicholas earlier this week about AJ prior to Cunningham’s sentencing.

Kotzman never met AJ, yet her heart aches for him. She heard the story of his tragic death and tried to do something.

“Who do I write? What do I do? How can I be a voice for this child?” Kotzman said. She didn’t feel the sentence was enough for the heinous crime.

“So many people knew, and could have done something about it and they didn’t. And this is not justice for AJ. I thought today that if she got 60 years, it still wasn’t justice,” Kotzman said. “But that if that so-called father got his natural life in prison, and DCFS is held accountable and responsible for their lack of action, they were deliberately indifferent.”

Kotzman said she hopes Freund gets a longer sentence when his time before a judge comes up.

“I want him to spend the rest of his life in jail. They’ve been addicted to drugs. I’m sorry. I really am not a hateful person, but I have hate in my heart over this I do,” Kotzman said.

During a sentencing hearing in McHenry County on Thursday, the voice of the little boy way played in court. He said he didn’t want a family and wanted to be away from Cunningham.

JoAnn Cunningham, 37, cries and wipes her nose during a sentencing hearing in Woodstock Thursday, July 16, 2020. With her is Public Defender Angelo Mourelatos. She pleaded guilty in December to killing her five-year-old son A.J. Freund Jr. in April, 2019 in her Crystal Lake home. His body was found in a shallow grave in Woodstock. (Credit: John Starks/jstarks@dailyherald.com)

More than a dozen witnesses testified, including a forensic pathologist who examined AJ’s body. He said the child bruises on his body and AJ had massive trauma to the head. The prosecution also showed pictures from inside the family’s Crystal Lake home that was in a state of squalor after AJ’s father, Andrew Freund, reported him missing.

This image of debris inside AJ Cunningham’s home was shown at JoAnn Cunningham’s sentencing hearing.

When Cunningham spoke, she talked about her own abuse as a child, indicating it led to abuse the five-year-old child.

During Cunningham’s sentencing hearing on Thursday, she asked the judge for forgiveness, saying she loved A.J., the 5-year-old son she admitted killing.

“I would give my life to have A.J. back,” Cunningham said in court. “This is something I will never escape from. I am impacted forever.”

But when A.J. went missing in April 2019, Cunningham told Crystal Lake detectives she had nothing to do with his disappearance. That turned out to be a lie.

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Freund, ultimately led police to the boy’s shallow grave. That was just some of the evidence and testimony presented at Cunningham’s sentencing hearing on Thursday.

As for A.J.’s father, Freund has pleaded not guilty and waived his right to a jury trial. No bench trial date has been set.