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JoAnn Cunningham, mother to slain 5-year-old AJ Freund, pleads guilty to first-degree murder

The Crystal Lake mother accused of beating and killing 5-year-old AJ Freund pleaded guilty late Thursday morning to first-degree murder.

An unshackled JoAnn Cunningham appeared in McHenry County Circuit Court accompanied by armed guards as she entered a guilty plea to one count of first-degree murder alleging that between the dates of April 15 through April 17 Cunningham struck her son knowing it would cause great bodily harm or result in his death.

Cunningham whispered the word “guilty.” When asked if she would like to say anything further, she paused and her defense attorney, Richard Behof, an assistant public defender, whispered in her ear before she said “not at this time, your honor.”

Cunningham entered what’s known as a blind plea. That means it is a plea without an agreement between a defense lawyer and prosecutor as to the sentence. All of the remaining charges were dismissed in exchange for Cunningham inking the plea deal. The murder charge carries a penalty of 20 to 60 years in prison, which must be served at 100%. Additionally, Cunningham would have to register as a violent offender against youth.

Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr. were arrested on April 24 and charged with first-degree murder and a litany of other felonies tied to AJ’s death.

The accused child killers made separate court appearances in a packed courtroom later that month when they pleaded not guilty to charges laid out in a 30-page grand jury indictment.

Both Cunningham, 36, and Freund, 60, previously requested trials by jury. A conviction of first-degree murder could result in a prison sentence of between 20 and 60 years or natural life. A conviction also would require consecutive sentencing, and registration as a violent offender against youth, prosecutors have said. 

The indictment, a list of charges formally approved by a McHenry County grand jury, outlined the “brutal and heinous” behavior that prosecutors said led to the young boy’s death. Cunningham and Freund are accused of repeatedly striking AJ and forcing him to take “time outs” for hours at a time between Sept. 20 and April 17, charging documents show.

The parents also are charged with battering AJ on March 4. Police previously found a video from that day on Cunningham’s phone. In it, Cunningham is heard “berating” a bandaged and severely bruised AJ, according to a police affidavit that has since been sealed.

A status date is set for Jan. 30. A sentencing date has not yet been set.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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