'Being a mother defines me': AJ's mom gives tearful statement at sentencing hearing
"Being a mother defines me," JoAnn Cunningham said through tears Thursday at her sentencing hearing for the murder of her 5-year-old son, AJ Freund.
Cunningham's description of herself starkly contrasted that of witnesses who, throughout the day, painted her as a "manipulative" and "disturbed" person prone to fits of rage. In videos played during the hearing, the 37-year-old mother could be heard berating and cursing at AJ, whom she described Thursday as "smart," "courageous," and "absolutely loved."
A handwritten statement she read aloud in court seemed to disappoint surviving members of AJ's family. One by one they nodded their heads in disbelief as Cunningham spoke about the alleged abuse she endured at a young age, and the "loving, kind, compassionate woman" she believes herself to be now.
"As much as I deserve punishment, I believe I deserve help," Cunningham said, weeping. "Help me."
Thursday marked one of the first times Cunningham has spoken on her own behalf since her April 24, 2019, arrest. She and AJ's father, Andrew Freund Sr., are accused of beating and killing their son on April 15, 2019, in their Crystal Lake home.
For days afterward, Freund and Cunningham hid AJ's body in a tote stored in their basement before burying the child and falsely reporting him missing on April 18, McHenry County prosecutors have said.
McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally asked the judge to sentence Cunningham to the maximum 60 years in prison for AJ's first-degree murder. McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt is expected to announce Cunningham's sentence Friday afternoon.
The boy's surviving family might have liked Cunningham to offer an apology or explanation for AJ's death as she recited her public statement in court Thursday, McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally said.
"I think we all are but I don't think we're going to get it," Kenneally said after the hearing. "I don't think she's capable of that."
A victim advocate from the McHenry County State's Attorney's Office indicated that AJ's family did not wish to comment after court.
Throughout the day, Wilbrandt heard testimony about text messages Cunningham and Freund exchanged in the days following AJ's death, speaking about the boy as if he were still alive. Alone in a Crystal Lake Police Department interview room, Cunningham quickly glanced at the camera recording her before bowing her head and reciting the Lord's Prayer.
In one recorded jail phone call between Cunningham and her then-incarcerated fiance Daniel Nowicki, Cunningham paused to ask, "AJ, can you get me another Red Bull? Thank you." AJ's battered body was tucked away in the basement at the time of the phone call, prosecutors said.
"She had done things knowing that a few days earlier she had beaten this little boy to the brink and then literally locked him in his room where he had to endure the bleak process of death all by himself," Kenneally said in court Thursday.
The anger, impulsivity, and addictions that Cunningham self-reported during three jailhouse evaluations seemed to align with a number of personality disorders, clinical psychologist Robert Meyer testified. Those diagnoses include anti-social personality disorder, borderline personality disorder and narcissism, Meyer said.
Cunningham's demeanor might have further changed after an ex-husband broke her ankle during a domestic situation. The narcotics she was prescribed to ease her ankle pain also numbed the emotional trauma from alleged abusive relationships, sexual assault, and general abandonment she claimed to experience throughout her life, Meyer said.
"I think she just found that too attractive to stay away," Meyer said.
The psychologist went on to testify, however, that Cunningham seemingly exaggerated some of her symptoms. As for her relationship with AJ, the mother and son might have missed out on an important bonding period when AJ was placed in a foster home after he was born with opiates in his system, Meyer said.
"The bonding with a mother and a child was interrupted," Meyer said. "She never got that."
A tense and somber mood filled the courtroom, where 11 of AJ's family members were seated directly behind the defense's table. Cunningham, her blond hair pulled back into two tight braids, appeared to be wearing a ring with a cross on her left ring finger and had tissues packed into the pocket of her orange jail shirt.
Throughout the hearing, Cunningham sat almost motionless, but for her hands, which she wrung in apparent discomfort. The mother of four seemed to become most upset and wiped away visible tears upon hearing her own voice on camera berating AJ. In one March 27, 2019, video played in court, Cunningham was heard arguing with AJ as he said in a soft, timid voice that he didn't want a family.
"You don't have one," Cunningham responded. "Do you really think (your dad) would choose you over me and (your brother?) ... Shut up!"
Cunningham went on to ask AJ multiple times why he wanted her to go away.
"Why do you want those bad people to hurt me?" JoAnn said.
"So I don't ever see you again," AJ responded.
The exchange was recorded about two weeks before AJ's death.
On Thursday, Cunningham praised AJ for his creativity, and sense of humor, noting his love for Legos and chocolate sprinkle doughnuts.
Although she briefly mentioned having made "horrendous choices," Cunningham never explicitly apologized for AJ's death.
"Nobody will ever understand unless they've walked in my shoes or know the torment I've suffered. And I will try to rise above human scorn and judgment. I never thought of my own well-being and even if I did I couldn't help myself," Cunningham said. "I was mentally unavailable even to myself. Unfortunately I managed to dispel my anxiety, depression and pain with drugs."
One of Cunningham's attorneys, McHenry County Assistant Public Defender Richard Behof, said Cunningham "became the person she despised the most as a child."
"She wasn't strong enough to overcome her childhood. She wasn't strong enough to overcome her poor choice in men. She wasn't strong enough to overcome her drug addiction, and most importantly she wasn't strong enough to protect AJ -- and that's why we're here," Behof said. "But I ask when you consider what sentence to give JoAnn, that you look at her life in its entirety."
Cunningham's family has denied abusing her emotionally and physically as a child, Kenneally said, adding that Cunningham used her statement as an attempt to garner sympathy.
"She hasn't been sitting here crying for AJ," Kenneally said during his closing argument. "She's crying for herself."