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JoAnn Cunningham's sentencing hearing set for first-degree murder of AJ Freund

A hearing to determine the prison sentence for a Crystal Lake mother who pleaded guilty to beating and killing her 5-year-old son, AJ Freund, is expected to begin at 9 a.m. Thursday.

JoAnn D. Cunningham’s sentence will close a chapter in the story that gripped and devastated the local community, which spent almost a week searching for AJ after he was falsely reported missing
April 18, 2019.

Cunningham, 37, remained at the McHenry County Jail on Friday without bond. She faces between 20 and 60 years in prison for first-degree murder. Social distancing efforts at the McHenry County courthouse will limit the number of people allowed in the room during Cunningham’s sentencing, McHenry County Trial Court Administrator Dan Wallis said.

An overflow room will be made available for the public, although details about the accommodation were not clear Friday. Specifications about the overflow area are expected to be finalized before Thursday.

On Dec. 5, the mother of four entered what’s known as a blind guilty plea, meaning there was no sentencing agreement between her defense lawyer and the prosecutor. Instead, McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt will issue a sentence he deems appropriate based on state guidelines as well as testimony and evidence presented at Thursday’s hearing.

After Cunningham’s plea, prosecutors dismissed remaining charges, including concealment of a homicidal death and failure to report a child death. No matter what sentence she receives, she’ll be required to serve 100% of the term and register as a violent offender against youth.

On the night of AJ’s death, Cunningham found soiled underwear the boy had apparently hidden in his closet. As punishment, the boy’s father, Andrew Freund, spanked AJ, and the parents placed the boy in a cold shower for about 20 minutes while Cunningham intermittently sprayed AJ in the face with a spray bottle, Freund told police.

He ultimately suggested that AJ fell in the shower at their 94 Dole Ave. home.

Had the case gone to trial, however, an expert witness would have testified that the head trauma and multiple blunt-force injuries AJ suffered were consistent with child abuse, not hypothermia or falling, prosecutors wrote in the 10-page factual basis to support Cunningham’s plea.

The dilapidated house where AJ died was demolished in March – the remains of a child’s bedroom visible from the street as an excavator tore into the home.

Cunningham’s attorneys, Assistant Public Defenders Richard Behof and Angelo Mourelatos, could not be reached for comment Friday.

AJ’s father, 61-year-old Andrew T. Freund Sr., also faces criminal charges, including first-degree murder, tied to the boy’s death. Freund has remained at the McHenry County Jail on a $5 million bond since he and Cunningham were arrested April 24, 2019.

Early that morning, Freund allegedly led investigators to the rural area near Woodstock where they discovered AJ’s body in a shallow grave, court records show.

Freund’s next court appearance is scheduled for July 30.

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally, who declined to comment on the sentencing Friday, previously said prosecutors intend to call about 10 witnesses. Wilbrandt has been keeping his calendar clear for the end of the week in the event the hearing carries over into Friday.

The state’s witnesses include family, police and medical experts, who prosecutors hope will provide testimony in support of Cunningham’s guilt and drive home the nature of the crime. Among other factors, prosecutors intend to highlight the opioids in AJ’s system at birth and the details of the Dec. 18, 2018, Department of Children and Family Services investigation, Kenneally said.

Cunningham’s attorneys from the McHenry County Public Defender’s Office will have a chance to call their own witnesses, whose testimony may lend itself to a more lenient sentence. It wasn’t immediately clear who the defense might call, although it isn’t likely Freund will testify for either party, Kenneally has said.

At the conclusion of a sentencing hearing, a judge can either issue a sentence that day or take the matter under advisement. In the latter scenario, the judge often sets a new sentencing date, allowing him or her time to review all of the evidence.

Before Wilbrandt hands down Cunningham’s sentence, AJ’s surviving family members will have an opportunity to express in open court how the boy’s death has affected their lives.

Cunningham is expected to make one final court appearance Tuesday before the hearing.

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