JoAnn Cunningham has been sent to a downstate Illinois prison to serve her 35-year sentence for the murder of her 5-year-old Crystal Lake son, AJ Freund.
Cunningham, 37, formerly of Crystal Lake, was transferred to Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln on Tuesday, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Records show she is expected to be released on April 24, 2054. She entered the prison with over a year of credit for time served in the McHenry County jail awaiting trial.
Shortly after Cunningham was sentenced on July 17 by McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt, AJ Freund’s family released a statement saying that they were “disappointed and saddened” by the short sentence.
“We, the family of our beloved Andrew (AJ), are disappointed and saddened by the ruling of the Judge,” AJ Freund’s family, besides his parents, said in a statement Friday afternoon.
“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 family said. “We had expected JoAnn would pay for that by spending her natural life in prison.”
“We also want to acknowledge everyone for their continued caring and support for AJ and helping to keep our little superhero’s spirit alive. Thank you so very much,” the family added.
Cunningham will be required to serve 100% of the 35-year sentence. She will have to serve three years of mandatory supervised release after being released from prison.
Cunningham pleaded guilty in December to first-degree murder and faced between 20 and 60 years in prison.
McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally began Cunningham’s sentencing hearing by reading statements of fact to the court from witness accounts.
A Crystal Lake police officer and a Northwestern emergency room doctor both testified regarding a large bruise found on AJ Freund’s hip in December 2018.
Several other people were called to the stand throughout the hearing.
Dr. Mark Witeck, who is a forensic pathologist, described his findings during an autopsy on the boy on April 25, 2019.
Witeck said that the boy had abrasions and contusions covering his entire body. He had a swollen brain, which ultimately caused his death, and broken ribs.
AJ’s brain was crushed into the skull to the point that it shut the rest of his body down, Witeck said.
AJ’s former foster mother said that the boy was “the most perfect little boy.”
A mental health expert said that he had met with Cunningham several times and determined that she has Cluster B personality disorder.
He said that Cunningham suffered a rape and abuse at a young age, and has extreme rage and attachment issues.
Kenneally gave a closing statement, saying that, “The real harm, the real injury caused by AJ’s death is limitless. AJ is irreplaceable. Nothing that we can do will bring him back.”
Kenneally said “this wasn’t a quiet, peaceful death” before describing how Cunningham beat the boy with a showerhead while screaming in the boy’s face.
“She hasn’t been sitting here crying for AJ, she has been sitting her crying for herself,” he said. Kenneally pleaded to the judge for the maximum sentence — 60 years.
Cunningham read a prepared statement at the end of the hearing.
“I have vowed to take this tragedy that I created and help whoever I can possibly help. I am a child of God. I am a loving, kind, passionate woman who has feelings and loves deeply. I’m human,” she said.
“As I stand here with all the hurt and pain I caused, I beg for forgiveness. Ask for compassion, love and mercy. My heart and mind failed me and my loved ones, and unfortunately, I cannot go back and change that,” Cunningham added.
AJ’s father, Andrew Freund Sr., has pleaded not guilty in the case and is scheduled to appear in court on August 28.
Peter Flowers, who is AJ Freund’s family attorney, said that the family is relieved to have this case finalized.
“They continue working to also hold the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services accountable for their blatant disregard for AJ’s life and safety,” Flowers said.
“Over the years, Crystal Lake police officers, medical professionals, and neighbors all alerted DCFS about concerns they had for AJ. These reports were never fully investigated, and in some cases, ignored by DCFS caseworkers and supervisors,” he added.
A federal civil lawsuit against DCFS was filed in 2019 and is currently proceeding in court. “Ultimately, our goal is to change the overall DCFS system so no other child in Illinois has to suffer like AJ,” Flowers said.