Woman who killed her 5-year-old son gets 35-year prison term

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JoAnn Cunningham cries as she reads a statement during a sentencing hearing in Woodstock, Ill., Thursday, July 16, 2020. Cunningham pleaded guilty in December to killing her 5-year-old son, Andrew “AJ” Freund Jr., in April 2019 in her Crystal Lake home. His body was found in a shallow grave in Woodstock. (John Starks/Daily Herald via AP, Pool)

WOODSTOCK, Ill. (AP) — A northern Illinois woman who subjected her young son to years of physical and emotional abuse culminating in his beating death last year was on Friday sentenced to 35 years in prison.

JoAnn Cunningham pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in December in the killing her son, Andrew “AJ” Freund. Eight months earlier, police uncovered the boy’s battered body, wrapped in plastic and concealed in a shallow grave near the family’s home in Crystal Lake.

Cunningham, her face covered by a surgical mask, did not visibly react in the courtroom after McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt’s ruling.

Cunningham faced between 20 to 60 years in prison. She pleaded for mercy from the judge on Thursday, portraying herself as a loving mother who misses her son.

Wilbrandt acknowledged that Cunningham had a “difficult life,” including addiction to drugs despite efforts to get treatment.

“She lapsed back into living in what can only be described as drug-addled filth — lying, cheating and manipulating her way through life while terrorizing her small son,” he said. “While her addictions do not justify her appalling behavior towards her own son, they perhaps do help explain why she engaged in … the inhumane, repulsive and frankly shocking course of conduct that ended her child’s young life.”

Prosecutors had asked the judge to impose the maximum 60-year sentence so the 37-year-old mother would die in state prison. Wilbrandt said he considered that Cunningham did not plead guilty to a charge of wanton cruelty or a charge that specified she intended to kill her son.

In a statement released by their attorney on Friday, family members said they were disappointed by the sentence.

“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,” the statement said. “We had expected JoAnn would pay for that by spending her natural life in prison.”

Prosecutors presented evidence that Cunningham physically and emotionally abused AJ for years before the beating that killed him. A police officer who went to the family’s home after AJ was reported missing described the stench of the garbage-strewn house.

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally said AJ died alone, padlocked inside his bedroom as his brain swelled and his own blood choked him.

Court documents tell of a boy who was in danger his entire life. Tests at birth revealed he and his mother had opiates in their systems, prompting the state’s Department of Children and Family Services to take the baby into custody before returning him to them some 20 months later.

The family home was repeatedly visited by state child welfare workers who concluded there was no reason to remove AJ.

Wilbrandt said he hoped examining the “history and the missed signals” in AJ’s case would spare other children “the horrifying result.”

“Miss Cunningham was responsible for that life and now she must be responsible for his death,” he said.

AJ’s father, 61-year-old Andrew Freund Sr., has been charged with first-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

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