AJ Freund's mother pleads guilty to murder, avoids possible life sentence

AJ Freund's mother unexpectedly pleaded guilty to the boy's murder during a surprise court appearance Thursday morning.

JoAnn Cunningham, 36, of Crystal Lake will face 20 to 60 years in prison when sentenced next year, after pleading guilty to a first-degree murder charge that had been modified to eliminate the possibility of a life sentence.

The plea deal removed language describing the killing as "brutal and heinous" from the murder charge, which therefore caps her maximum sentence at 60 years. Cunningham will be required to serve 100% of the sentence, prosecutors said.

A sentencing status hearing is scheduled for Jan. 30.

McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally issued a brief news release announcing the plea deal, stating Cunningham pleaded guilty "for her part in the beating death of her son."

Information filed by prosecutors Thursday afternoon includes details of the night AJ died, as well as an assertion that a forensic pathologist would testify that AJ's injuries were consistent with child abuse.

The 11-page document states prosecutors would have presented evidence that in the years and months before his death, AJ had been the victim of "a number of prior incidents of child abuse, torment, and callous neglect" at the hands of his mother.

It also listed several separate occasions in which AJ was seen with significant bruising and cuts. To explain the injuries, Cunningham at different times said AJ spilled boiling water on himself or had fallen down the stairs.

The information also outlines a video on Cunningham's phone made weeks before AJ's murder in which she grabs him by the throat, pushes him against a wall and insists he tell her who he is going to "get her in trouble with." At one point, she asks AJ why he wants bad things to happen to his younger brother, according to evidence prosecutors said would have been presented at trial.

The guilty plea means Cunningham stipulated to that and other information contained in the filing, Kenneally said.

"Much of the aggravation in this case is just the nature of the crime itself, so I do think a lot more information will come out," he added.

Cunningham appeared in court Thursday without leg irons or handcuffs and was barely audible when answering questions from Judge Robert A. Wilbrandt regarding the plea arrangement. The atmosphere in the courtroom was solemn as details of the arrangement were outlined.

She pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder stating she struck AJ sometime between April 15 and April 17, knowing it would create a "strong probability of death or great bodily harm."

Talks have been ongoing and took months of work, Kenneally said, but most of the developments that led to the guilty plea happened this week.

"We said that if there's going to be something that gets done, she can plead on the most serious charge," he said.

Prosecutors said the guilty plea does not require Cunningham to testify against AJ's 60-year-old father, Andrew Freund Sr., who also is charged with murder and other felonies related to the 5-year-old boy's death.

But Kenneally said Cunningham could be called as a witness if Freund's case goes to trial.

"I can't give you a good idea how this ultimately will affect his case or how his case will ultimately be resolved. We're just not there yet," Kenneally said.

Freund's court-appointed attorney, Henry Sugden, said his client planned to cooperate with prosecutors. He doesn't think Cunningham's plea will affect Freund's case.

According to court records, Freund blamed Cunningham for the boy's death, telling investigators she beat AJ about the head after forcing him to endure a 20-minute cold shower after he "lied" about soiled underwear.

Within the document filed Thursday are excerpts of police interviews with Freund Sr. In one exchange, he tells investigators he often had to intercede when Cunningham hit AJ. Freund claimed he told Cunningham "that's not the way to go," so she came up with cold showers as punishment instead.

He also told police AJ died some point on the evening of April 14, after Cunningham engaged in "some hitting" and put AJ in the cold shower. Cunningham put the shower spray nozzle in AJ's face, which caused him to sometimes lose his balance and fall in the tub, Freund told detectives.

"I don't remember it being as bad as other nights, where it was just pure, ya know, physical punishment, hitting," Freund told police, according to the document.

An autopsy revealed multiple blunt force injures to AJ's head, torso and extremities. Those injuries included abrasions on his forehead that matched the pattern of the detachable shower head, court records state. The cause of death was head injuries, the autopsy determined.

AJ Freund

AJ initially was reported missing by his parents April 18, sparking a massive search that went on for days.

During the investigation, detectives recovered a video from Cunningham's phone showing a partially naked AJ lying on a bare mattress in a crib being berated by Cunningham for urinating in his bed. A search warrant described the video as the aftermath of a beating the boy suffered at the hands of his mother a month before he was killed.

When confronted with the video, Freund told investigators AJ died April 15. He said he stuffed the boy's body in a duffel bag and kept it in the basement for two days before taking AJ's remains to a field near Woodstock, where he buried him in a shallow grave.

Just weeks ago, Cunningham insisted to a CBS 2 reporter that she did not harm her son.

"I would never hurt my children," she said, sobbing.

She acknowledged using drugs while pregnant, which resulted in AJ spending his first 18 months in Illinois Department of Children and Family Services custody and living with Cunningham's relatives. But AJ later was returned to his mother and father.

The child's death ignited a storm of criticism aimed at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which investigated reports of neglect and possible abuse in the months before the AJ's death but ruled them "unfounded."

AJ's surviving siblings - an older brother, a younger brother and a sister Cunningham gave birth to while in jail - have filed suit against two DCFS employees who handled the family's case, alleging their "inhumane indifference" led to AJ's death.

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