Thirty-five years just isn’t enough.
And she ended it in the most cruel and inhumane way imaginable.
Thursday afternoon, at the end of her sentencing hearing, she then had the opportunity to come clean and apologize to AJ, her family and the world for what she had done. But instead it came off as a lot of excuses, a prayer to God for mercy and something far short of remorse.
As McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally aptly put it, “She hasn’t been sitting here crying for AJ. She’s crying for herself.”
In response to the sentence, Kenneally and AJ's family members would only say they were "disappointed" with the sentence but it's clear the hurt runs deeper than that for many.
The details of what Cunningham did, detailed in court on Thursday, were both gruesome and heartbreaking.
After mentally and physically abusing AJ for years, Cunningham ended his life last April when she held him in an ice cold shower and beat him to the edge of death with a showerhead.
Then, instead of recognizing what she had done and looking for emergency care for AJ, she instead locked him in his bedroom – a bedroom with no opportunity for escape with a padlock on the outside of the door and the windows nailed shut – to die alone.
His brain swelled beyond the capacity of his skull. He began tasting blood in his mouth. Then the swelling became too much, his body shutdown and AJ died, according to forensic pathologist Dr. Mark Witeck.
"The pain and trauma to AJ’s little body proved too much … mercifully, he died," Kenneally said in his closing statement. "5 years old, locked in a room, wet … totally and profoundly alone."
Even then, Cunningham kept doing the wrong things. Instead of calling the police and admitting what she had done, she instead stuffed his body in a tote in the basement of the family's home and hid it.
His decomposing body was later buried in a shallow grave near Woodstock and the lies continued as she prayed to God at the Crystal Lake Police Station and cried in front of cameras and at a community vigil for his safe return, even sending text messages back and forth with AJ's father about mundane improvements for the future of AJ's life.
It was pure evil, from start to finish. And none of the facts of the case and her actions were disputed by the defense. These are the things she did, period.
Taking a plea agreement should not have meant allowing Cunningham the opportunity to see the light of day again, allowing her the potential to leave prison in 35 years to potentially ruin more lives.
Because even though, at the age of 72, she might not have the physical ability to beat another child to death, she could still have the mental capacity to do what she did to AJ again.
One of the hardest parts of listening to Thursday's sentencing hearing, along with the horrendous details of the day of his death, was listening to video Cunningham took while she was berating AJ on March 27, 2019.
AJ was talking to his mother, who was supposed to be his protector, about how his biggest wish in life was to find a way to get away from her, to get the "bad people" to punish her back.
His small, high-pitched voice trying to explain what he wanted to do. Then Cunningham responding about how no one would care, listen, and even his father wouldn't choose AJ over Cunningham.
"Do you really think (your dad) would choose you over me and (your brother)?" she asked AJ, then screamed "Shut up" at him.
It was clear she felt invincible, like what she was doing to AJ was right and there was nothing he could do to respond. This was her telling him that the authorities were "bad people" and they wouldn't care about his story.
"There’s no way we could get in trouble," Cunningham could be heard telling AJ. "Who would you go tell on us to get us in trouble? What would you do? What is your grand plan? How would you get us in trouble? With who? With what people?"
She said the same things over and over, recording it all, trying to cut down his will.
Ultimately, she was successful.
But before she stopped, she asked AJ again why he wanted the "bad people" to hurt her.
"So I don’t ever see you again," AJ's small voice could be heard responding.
Luckily for AJ, he won't have to. But the problem with his mother's 35-year sentence is that – for his two younger siblings – we cannot say the same with any certainty.
• Northwest Herald Editor Jon Styf can be reached at email@example.com or 815-526-4630.