35-year sentence 'isn't justice for AJ,' boy's family, supporters say
JoAnn Cunningham's 35-year sentence Friday for beating her 5-year old son, AJ Freund, to death in their Crystal Lake home disappointed those who have closely followed the case and advocated for changes in the child welfare system.
"Mad. Hurt," said Tracy Kotzman, who founded the ROAR for AJ group. She and a small corps of supporters have spent hours in silent demonstration outside the McHenry County courthouse during proceedings involving Cunningham or AJ's father, Andrew Freund Sr.
They were there Friday for Cunningham's sentencing by Judge Robert Wilbrandt.
"I don't think it's enough," Kotzman said. "So many people knew and could have done something, but they didn't. This isn't justice for AJ."
Jeff Berggren, a ROAR member and father of two from Huntley, said Cunningham should have received a life sentence.
"What she did to this little boy -- everybody should be outraged. I was disappointed," he said.
AJ's family members, through attorney Peter J. Flowers, said they were "disappointed and saddened" by the ruling and had expected Cunningham, 37, to pay for what AJ endured by spending her natural life in prison.
Others had become personally invested in the life and death of a boy they never met.
"I was hopeful for 60 years but was thinking along the lines of 45," said ROAR member Rosa Mallette. "When he (Wilbrandt) said 35, it hit hard."
AJ's battered body, which had been wrapped in garbage bags, was recovered April 24, 2019, from a shallow grave in rural Woodstock, six days after he was reported missing.
For eight months, Cunningham asserted her innocence. On Dec. 5, she pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and signed an 11-page document that outlined the excruciating last day of AJ's life. She was facing 20 to 60 years as prosecutors Thursday presented often disturbing evidence and testimony as to why Cunningham should get the maximum.
At the end of the daylong proceeding, a sobbing Cunningham spoke in her own defense. She said mental and physical abuse in her life led her to drugs to take the pain away.
"As much as I deserve punishment, I believe I deserve help," she told Wilbrandt on Thursday. "I would give my life to have AJ back. This is something I will never escape from."
Crystal Lake resident Randy Funk, who was one of the onlookers in early March when the Freund home at 94 Dole Ave. was demolished, said he was disappointed in the sentence.
"He (Wilbrandt) didn't even go halfway" in the sentencing range, said Funk, who knew Freund Sr. in high school and is part of a group that has been raising money to help AJ's siblings.
"Thirty-five years was an insult to the community and the police," he said.
Tracy Calhoun and some friends organized a vigil at Main Beach in Crystal Lake when AJ was still missing and founded Ribbons for AJ. Royal blue ribbons became a ubiquitous community rallying symbol.
"AJ's life is worth a lot more than that. It's a grave injustice," she said of the 35-year sentence.
"I understand she had a hard life," Calhoun said of Cunningham. "I don't think that justifies killing her son."
Kotzman said the group will be there for Freund Sr.'s proceedings. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
Kotzman and others also plan to keep pushing for change within the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which she said was "deliberately indifferent" to AJ's circumstances.