Parents of slain 5-year-old AJ Freund plead not guilty

The parents of 5-year-old AJ Freund pleaded not guilty Friday to first-degree murder and other charges in connection with the Crystal Lake boy's beating death.

Through their public defenders, Andrew Freund Sr., 60, and JoAnn Cunningham, 36, entered the pleas in separate proceedings before Judge Robert Wilbrandt. Both requested jury trials and are due back in McHenry County circuit court June 18.

Wilbrandt on Friday granted a defense request for a psychological exam for Freund Sr. but did not rule on a gag order requested by Freund's attorney, Henry Sugden, saying it was too broad.

Indictments against the pair filed Thursday include allegations the boy was beaten for months and faced lengthy "time outs" during that period.

Cunningham was indicted on 20 counts including three counts of first-degree murder. A conviction on that charge carries a sentence of 20 to 60 years in prison but can be extended to natural life if the murder is found beyond a reasonable doubt to be accompanied by "exceptionally brutal or heinous behavior indicative of wanton cruelty," according to the indictment. The sentences on multiple charges can be imposed consecutively and must be served in full.

Freund Sr. is charged with 21 counts, including three counts of first-degree murder. He would face the same sentencing possibility if convicted.

Each parent was charged with reckless conduct, unlawful restraint and endangering the life of a child for offenses alleged to have been committed on or between Sept. 20, 2018, and April 17. According to the indictment, AJ was "recklessly and repeatedly struck" during that time and placed in "time outs" for "multiple hours or longer."

Also, Freund Sr. and Cunningham were charged with aggravated battery and aggravated domestic battery for, authorities allege, striking AJ on March 4.

Freund Sr. called 911 on April 18, three days after the boy is believed to have been forced to stand in a cold shower and struck multiple time on the head, according to authorities, who say the blows caused his death.

Freund Sr. also faces charges of concealing the death and moving the body, as well as providing authorities with false information regarding his missing son, knowing the boy was dead and the report would generate an emergency response.

The day AJ was reported missing, 15 or more police agencies with dogs, divers and sonar searched nearly 900 acres on foot, in water and in the air. Six days later, Freund Sr. was confronted with evidence police had collected, and he led investigators to the body, which had been wrapped in plastic, in a shallow grave in a semirural area near Woodstock, authorities said.

On Monday, Sugden filed a motion for the gag order "to bar any further nonjudicial statements, declarations or representations of facts by both parties" because the case has generated "considerable interest" and made the local, regional and national news.

Wilbrandt on Friday said he would not grant the motion because it was too broad. He said he was open to some restriction but needed to balance the right of free speech and public interest with that of due process for the accused.

The case has galvanized the community and brought scrutiny on the actions of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which visited the home on several occasions.

On Friday, U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood honored AJ in a speech on the House floor. She highlighted the need to improve the foster care system and strengthen policies that failed AJ and other children who experience abuse.

"AJ's death is heartbreaking and so are the flaws in the system that failed him," said the Naperville Democrat, whose 14th Congressional District includes parts of DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties.

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AJ Freund
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