A sentence is coming Thursday for AJ's death: Mother could get 60 years in prison
Fifteen months ago, the recovery of 5-year-old AJ Freund's battered body from a shallow grave in rural Woodstock ended a frantic six-day search and ignited widespread public sentiment over his death that still resonates.
On Thursday, McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt will sentence AJ's mother, JoAnn Cunningham, 37, for her part in the boy's beating death in the family's Crystal Lake home.
After maintaining her innocence for nearly eight months, Cunningham in December reached an agreement with prosecutors to plead guilty to a single count of first-degree murder, which carries a sentence of 20 to 60 years in prison.
The charge was modified to eliminate the possibility of a life sentence, but Cunningham will have to serve 100% of whatever term she receives. That means the maximum would be akin to life, prosecutors have said.
AJ's father, Andrew Freund Sr., has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and other charges, and is awaiting trial. Both have been held in McHenry County jail on $5 million bail since their arrests after Freund Sr. led authorities to his son's body on April 24, 2019.
The sentencing hearing for Cunningham begins at 9 a.m. Space will be limited in the courtroom because of COVID-19 restrictions, as well as in a jury assembly room where closed circuit-video/audio of the proceeding will be shown.
An array of witnesses, including doctors, a child abuse expert and others, have been summoned to testify. Freund Sr., who has implicated JoAnn in their son's death, will not be called as a witness, McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally said Tuesday.
Prosecutors will begin the hearing by presenting evidence of aggravation, Kenneally said. That's expected to include AJ's medical records and testimony from an emergency room doctor who treated him Dec. 18, 2018, when the boy reportedly said "Maybe mommy didn't mean to hurt me" while being treated for a large bruise on his hip.
The defense will follow with what it considers to be mitigating factors showing Cunningham deserves a lesser sentence. Her court-appointed attorney, Angelo Mourelatos, said Tuesday Cunningham's psychological, psychiatric and substance abuse evaluations will be entered as evidence.
Cunningham has a right to make a statement in her defense, but she is not required to and there has been no indication what will happen.
All records, reports, evaluations, photos, videos, interviews and other information involving the case have been kept private under a protective order.
On Tuesday, Wilbrandt agreed with prosecutors that certain photos and videos either showing AJ's siblings or containing graphic images should not be publicized and are banned to still photography or television coverage by the media.
Cunningham previously signed an 11-page "factual basis" for her guilty plea, which includes details of the night AJ died. That document states that if she had gone to trial prosecutors would have presented evidence that AJ had been the victim of "a number of prior incidents of child abuse, torment, and callous neglect" at the hands of his mother in the years and months before his death.
Kenneally said the defense has stipulated to much of the information and expected the presentations to finish Thursday. However, Wilbrandt indicated he wanted to consider the information before imposing the sentence. Court time has been scheduled for that purpose from 1:30 to 2 p.m. Friday.
As they have in conjunction with other court appearances by Cunningham and Freund, members of the ROAR for AJ group held signs outside the McHenry County courthouse in Woodstock Tuesday morning.
Huntley resident Jeff Berggren, who has two kids, including a son who will be turning 7, said he would be disappointed if the sentence isn't 60 years.
"All the horrible things he experienced, the life he had," Berggren said. "Your parents and your house -- that's supposed to be your safe place."