Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY DON BABWIN

A north­ern Illi­nois woman who beat her young son for most of his life and pad­locked him in his be­d­room where he died alone in the dark, his head bear­ing the out­lines of the shower head she struck him with, on Thurs­day por­trayed her­self as a lov­ing mother as she begged for mercy from the judge who will sen­tence her for mur­der.

“I had the priv­i­lege of hav­ing AJ as my son,” JoAnn Cun­ning­ham said of 5-year-old An­drew “AJ” Freund.

Cun­ning­ham pleaded guilty in De­cem­ber to killing AJ, eight months af­ter his body was found wrapped in plas­tic in a shal­low grave near the fam­ily’s Crys­tal Lake home.

“I loved him, I miss him,” she told McHenry County Judge Robert Wil­brandt.

Sound­ing like a griev­ing mother whose child was killed by some­one else, she de­scribed AJ’s love of dough­nuts with sprin­kles and his habit of tot­ing a brief­case be­cause he wanted to be a lawyer. Cun­ning­ham ad­dressed only in the vaguest of terms her son’s killing, choos­ing in­stead to de­scribe her own dif­fi­cult life.

“I am liv­ing proof of what phys­i­cal and men­tal abuse can cre­ate,” she sobbed.

Her tear­ful com­ments stood in stark con­trast to the tes­ti­mony heard ear­lier Thurs­day, when the pros­e­cu­tor pre­sented ev­i­dence of the al­most unimag­in­able phys­i­cal and emo­tional abuse Cun­ning­ham in­flicted on AJ for years, un­til last year when the boy, his brain swelling, chok­ing on his own blood, died.

“She had beaten this lit­tle boy to the edge of death, ... locked in his room [where] he had to en­dure the bleak process of death all by him­self,” said McHenry County State’s At­tor­ney Pa­trick Ken­neally.

Wil­brandt said he would an­nounce Cun­ning­ham’s sen­tence on Fri­day af­ter­noon. She faces a prison sen­tence of 20 to 60 years. Ken­neally asked Wil­brandt to im­pose the max­i­mum sen­tence, which would mean the 37-year-old mother would die in prison be­cause she must serve the en­tire sen­tence.

AJ’s fa­ther, An­drew Freund Sr., also is charged with first-de­gree mur­der. He has pleaded not guilty and is await­ing trial.

Thurs­day’s hear­ing in­cluded a host of dra­matic mo­ments, none more so than when pros­e­cu­tors played an au­dio tape of an ar­gu­ment be­tween AJ and his mother two weeks be­fore he died.

The boy can be heard telling his mother he would like to have “re­ally bad peo­ple” do bad things to her so she would leave him with his fa­ther.

Cun­ning­ham asks why.

“So I don’t ever see you again,” AJ an­swered, ac­cord­ing to the North­west Her­ald.

Per­haps the strangest and most chill­ing ev­i­dence came when pros­e­cu­tors pre­sented the judge with text mes­sages that the boy’s par­ents ex­changed af­ter AJ was killed but be­fore his body was found.

The texts sug­gest the cou­ple was tak­ing pains to cover their tracks by writ­ing mes­sages they thought po­lice would ul­ti­mately see. They dis­cuss plans for AJ and his brother, in­clud­ing dec­o­rat­ing Easter eggs and what they might do to im­prove AJ’s be­hav­ior.

“Give the boys a kiss and hug for me,” Freund texted Cun­ning­ham. In one text she asked Freund about buy­ing a tele­vi­sion so she and the boys “can watch movies in bed.”


JoAnn Cun­ning­ham cries as she reads a state­ment Thurs­day dur­ing her sen­tenc­ing hear­ing. Cun­ning­ham pleaded guilty in De­cem­ber to killing her 5-year-old son, An­drew “AJ” Freund.

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