Ellsworth AFB airman's murder case in military court

 James T. Cunningham, 26, is charged with murder. (Pennington County Sheriff's Office)
James T. Cunningham, 26, is charged with murder. (Pennington County Sheriff's Office) (KOTA)
Published: Jun. 22, 2020 at 2:53 PM MDT
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An airman accused of murdering his infant son has admitted that he hit the boy after becoming angry, a prosecutor said Monday at a hearing at Ellsworth Air Force Base.

There is "no lawful reason for a grown man to hit a five-month-old," Capt. Anna Sturges of the base's legal office said during an Article 32 preliminary and probable cause hearing.

James Cunningham, 26, is charged with murder under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The baby died after he was hit in the head at his parent's Rapid City home in March.

The prosecutor also cited the infant's March 3 medical records from Monument Health and a March 13 autopsy. The medical records say the baby suffered "non-accidental trauma," while the autopsy listed his death as a homicide, she said.

Sturges said a video of Cunningham's March 3 interview with the Rapid City Police Department included a "confession" that proves Cunningham intended "to kill or inflict great bodily harm" and/or "engaged in an act which is inherently dangerous to another and evinces a wanton disregard of human life."

Cunningham, dressed in green fatigues, appeared calm during the 45-minute hearing but looked down at the desk as Sturges went over the details of his confession.

Cunningham was arrested and charged March 3 by the Rapid City Police Department with aggravated child abuse for punching the baby in the head. The Pennington County State's Attorney Office upgraded the charge to second-degree murder when the infant died nine days later after being airlifted to a hospital in Sioux Falls.

Cunningham had already made several appearances at the Pennington County Court when the Air Force requested to take over the case in early May, said Lara Roetzel, chief deputy at the state's attorney office.

The Air Force works "towards maximizing jurisdiction over our airmen," Lt. Joshua Sinclair, an Ellsworth spokesman, said when asked why the Air Force wanted the case.

Cunningham faces a maximum punishment of life in prison without parole, a dishonorable discharge, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade and forfeiture of all pay. He is being held at the Ellsworth jail.

A judge advocate will decide at a later date whether there is probable cause to refer the case to a court martial, or the formal trial phase.

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