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An Illinois mother has pleaded guilty to the murder of her 5-year-old son, whose death raised question about the effectiveness of child protection services in that state.
JoAnn Cunningham, 26, pleaded guilty Thursday to the murder of Andrew "AJ" Freund Jr., whose body was discovered in a shallow grave in a remote area of Woodstock, wrapped in plastic and covered with straw. His body was found just days after his parents reported him missing.
Cunningham now faces between 20 and 60 years in prison and she will not be eligible for parole. She “must serve 100% of her sentence,” the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office said in a press release.
“I’m satisfied with the plea," Prosecutor Patrick Kenneally told the Chicago Tribune. "It’s on the most serious charge. We expect if not a life sentence, the vast majority of her life will be spent in prison.”
Both Cunningham and the boy’s father, 60-year-old Andrew Freund Sr., were charged in April with murder and related charges in connection with the boy’s death. Both pleaded not guilty in May.
Prosecutors said the child was forced to sit in a frigid shower before being beaten so badly he died. His parents allegedly became irate that the boy lied about soiling himself, precipitating the fatal punishment. He died from head trauma due to blunt force injuries.
AJ had been removed from his parents’ home shortly after his birth after opiates were found in his system, but he was eventually returned to his parents. From there, there were investigations into alleged abuse, but none that resulted in him being removed from the home. Records from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services ,obtained by Oxygen.com, revealed the agency looked into several reports of abuse and neglect, but each time those claims were determined to be "unfounded."
Video found on his mother’s cellphone, taken a month before AJ died, showed her berating the badly bruised boy over wetting his bed. AJ was even brought to the ER in December with a hip bruise and “the doctor was concerned because Andrew stated that, 'Maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe mommy didn’t mean to hurt me,’” according to the records.
AJ had a younger brother, who is currently in state care, and Cunningham gave birth to another child on May 31 while behind bars.
“I hope her incentive [to plead guilty] was because she cares about (her other children) and didn’t want to make them go through a trial and have to testify on the stand,” Cunningham's mother Lori Hughes told the Chicago Tribune. “That’s my hope.”
She went on to say, “She knew there was all this evidence against her. She knew she was guilty, obviously.”
Freund Sr., who has pleaded not guilty to three murder charges and several other offenses, is expected to go on trial next year.
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