JoAnn Cunningham was sentenced Friday to 35 years in prison for the 2019 murder of her 5-year-old son AJ Freund, whose body was found in a shallow grave in Illinois.
Cunningham, 37, pleaded guilty in December to killing her son. Her sentence is set to begin immediately and will be served on its entirety without reductions other than time served.
Upon her release from prison, she will serve an additional three years under supervised release and will be required to register as a violent offender against youth, a judge said Friday.
"It was a horrible death preceded by a horrible life," McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt said during the sentencing hearing on Friday.
Before announcing the sentence, Wilbrandt said there was "no finding that Ms. Cunningham intended to kill her son and no finding that she committed the type of wanton cruelty that could have resulted in a sentence of imprisonment for natural life."
AJ ‘lived his life in the shadow of her darkness’
AJ’s body was found wrapped in plastic in the grave on April 24, 2019, about 10 miles away from the family’s home in Crystal Lake, Illinois.
Cunningham and AJ’s father, Andrew Freund Sr. reported AJ missing on April 18, saying he was in his bed the night before, but gone the next morning. The dayslong search gained interest nationwide.
Freund Sr., 61, eventually provided information that led to AJ’s grave, officials said. The boy probably died days earlier, on April 15, authorities have said. The cause of death was head trauma from blunt force, according to the coroner’s report.
The night he died, AJ was forced to take a cold shower after he soiled his clothes, and had gone to bed wet and naked before his parents found him dead, authorities have said.
During a sentencing hearing Thursday, McHenry County prosecuting attorney Patrick Kenneally asked for the maximum sentence of 60 years after painting a bleak picture of the short and brutal life that was AJ’s.
AJ "lived his life in the shadow of her darkness, a dystopian world when your mother scapegoats you, beat you for minor infractions, locks you in your room so that your childish exuberance doesn’t get in the way of her benzo amphetamine and opioid use," Kenneally said.
"If ever there was a case that demanded the most forceful and maximum response, not only based on the nature of the case, but their own expert witness say that she’s going to be a danger for the rest of her life, it’s this case," Kenneally said.
‘Beyond any category of wrong’
Sobbing while she spoke to the judge to ask for mercy, Cunningham said it was a "privilege" to have AJ as her son.
"There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do to bring him back," she said.
The mother and her attorney focused on the fact that she’d been a victim of abuse, pretty much all her life.
Cunningham’s attorney told the judge to look at "her life in its entirety."
The family had a long history of child welfare calls to the Department of Children and Family Services, according to a report the department released last year.
Cunningham and AJ tested positive for opiates and benzodiazepines when he was born. AJ was removed from her care, and DCFS took custody of the infant.
AJ was returned to the couple eight months later, after both parents took parenting classes and entered a drug treatment program.
Authorities have described dog feces and urine throughout the home where AJ lived, with broken windows and a strong smell of feces where AJ and his younger brother slept.
The prosecutor on Thursday described a drug-using and abusive mother who cared only for herself. "What she did goes beyond any category of wrong," Kenneally said.
"It’s evil," Kenneally said. "And trying to understand evil, showing tolerance in the face of this type of evil, only begets more evil."
Freund Sr. has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. His next court date is set for July 30.
CNN’s Nicole Chavez, Madeline Holcombe, Brad Parks, Eric Levenson and Ray Sanchez contributed to this report.
July 18, 2020 at 09:02AM