'Must now be responsible for his death': Cunningham gets 35 years for murdering AJ Freund, her son
After months of denying beating and killing her 5-year-old son, JoAnn Cunningham sat motionless as a judge sentenced her to 35 years in prison for AJ Freund's murder.
The sentence came as a disappointment to the McHenry County state's attorney Office, which asked the judge to issue the maximum 60-year sentence.
The Crystal Lake mother, 37, who had pleaded guilty to murder in December, must serve the full 35-year prison term.
"Miss Cunningham was responsible for that life and must now be responsible for his death," McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt said.
Cunningham showed no reaction when Wilbrandt announced her sentence for causing AJ's death on April 15, 2019. Some family members hung their heads and cried silently from the seats directly behind Cunningham. In a prepared statement issued by the family's attorney after court Friday, the family said they were saddened by the judge's ruling.
"We know that whatever the punishment, it will not ease the loss and pain we feel. AJ was an innocent, precious little boy whose life was taken from him after he endured, what we now know, was much pain and suffering," the statement read. "We had expected JoAnn would pay for that by spending her natural life in prison."
The judge noted that he was aware that as part of her plea that particular language "exceptional cruelty or heinous behavior indicative of a wanton cruelty" was removed.
He noted, though, that she "repeatedly struck her son on the head with a metal shower (head)," took him out of the shower and locked him in his bedroom, where he died alone.
"It was a horrible death preceded by a horrible life," Wilbrandt said.
Upon release from prison, she will serve at least three years of mandatory supervised release and be required to register as a violent offender against youth.
AJ's father, Andrew Freund Sr., also faces murder charges tied to the boy's death and the false missing person report he is accused of filing days after the boy's death.
During a seven-hour hearing on Thursday, prosecutors presented graphic photos and videos of the abuse AJ endured at the hands of his parents.
In his decision, Wilbrandt said the court considered Cunningham's tough childhood and loss of her brother, who killed himself in 2001. He also addressed her "long and sordid history of drug abuse" that worsened her mental health issues.
She has been addicted to heroin, Adderall and a number of other substances for many years, he said.
He further noted her son was born with heroin in his system, and though she sought treatment "a number of times," that treatment was not successful.
He said she lived "drug-filled, lying, cheating and manipulating her way through life while terrorizing her small son."
Cunningham grew tearful each time she heard audio clips where she berated AJ, whose own voice was careful and timid as the 5-year-old attempted to stand up for himself.
For months, Cunningham denied any involvement in AJ's death and publicly pleaded for him to return home.
"There's so many creeps out there. Oh my God," Cunningham said during a recorded police interview that was played in court Thursday. "He's probably so scared."
Throughout the day Thursday, prosecutors showed photographs of Cunningham and Freund's dilapidated home, which Crystal Lake police officers described as "filthy" and filled with garbage. Photographs of AJ's bedroom offered a glimpse at the living conditions within the home, which has since been demolished.
White letters spelling out "love" adorned the door frame inside AJ's teal-walled bedroom, where he slept in a modified crib. Snapshots of the room showed Ninja Turtle curtains, chipped and peeling paint, and a dirty potty training seat. Officers testified to seeing a pile of soiled diapers, padlocks outside the bedroom and closet doors, and nails and hooks holding the boy's windows shut.
"I had sensory overload," Crystal Lake police officer Brian Burr testified Thursday.
Members of AJ's family listened in apparent disbelief Thursday as prosecutors played video and audio recordings of Cunningham screaming at AJ in the months leading up to his death.
When it came time for Cunningham to read a handwritten statement on her own behalf, the mother of four spoke about the alleged physical, emotional and sexual abuse she experienced throughout her life.
Motherhood and her children were God's "greatest gift" to her, she said.
"My heart belongs entirely to them. All of my children are sacred, most precious treasures," Cunningham said. "I miss all of them so much words cannot describe it."