By Linda Looney-Bond
The trial of a Stockbridge man charged with feeding tainted soup to his two young children in 2006 began Monday in Clayton County Superior Court.
William Allen Cunningham is facing five counts of cruelty to children and two counts of aggravated assault on state charges in the case, which is being heard by Clayton County Chief Superior Court Judge Matthew Simmons.
Cunningham is already serving a five-year sentence in the case after he pleaded guilty to a federal charge of communicating false information - that the Campbell's soup he fed his children had been factory-contaminated.
Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson along with Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Bill Dixon, and defense attorney Richard Genirberg, questioned more than two dozen potential jurors before settling on five men and eight women for the 12-member jury, plus one alternate juror.
In opening arguments, Dixon told the jury the state would prove that on three separate occasions in January 2006, Cunningham tainted soup with prescription drugs and lighter fluid, then fed it to his then 3-year-old son, and his 18-month-old daughter.
"He was all red, his lips were swollen, he had lesions, his eyes were swollen," Dixon said, describing the condition of the boy when he was treated at a local hospital on Jan. 1, 2006, after the first alleged incident.
Dixon then described the third alleged incident, which he said took place on Jan. 29, 2006. "Both kids get violently ill, and this time, it's serious," he said.
"This time [Cunningham's daughter] has to be Life-Flighted. She almost died," Dixon told the jury.
Dixon said at the time of the incidents, Cunningham was living in a mobile home park in Stockbridge with the two children, his then-wife, Rhonda, and his mother, whom he had relied upon for income. "He didn't have much money, he was unemployed, his mother was dying. His scheme was to use his children to make money," Dixon said.
Dixon said Cunningham tainted the soup in hopes of suing the Campbell Soup Company. He said on Jan. 20, 2006, Cunningham called the company and falsely claimed that his children had gotten sick after eating factory-contaminated soup. "That phone call to Campbell's Soup was recorded, and you're going to hear that," he said.
Dixon also told the jury that the state will call a witness who will testify that Cunningham admitted to tainting the soup. "You're going to see that he made a complete admission to the allegations in this case," Dixon said.
Cunningham's attorney, Richard Genirberg, did not make an opening statement. Cunningham, whose head was shaved, sat beside Genirberg dressed in dark blue jeans, white tennis shoes, and a white golf shirt.
The state's first witness was Cunningham's former mother-in-law, Janet Dockery. Dockery testified that her grandchildren currently live with her and her daughter, Rhonda, the children's mother, in Morrow. Dockery said when she suspected that Cunningham had poisoned the children, she told her daughter to take the children, and the soup, to a children's hospital in Morrow. She said after the girl was rushed by helicopter to another hospital, "she was on life support for three days."
Graham Lawson called Rhonda Cunningham, the children's mother, to the stand as the state's next witness. She said, "The doctor came out and said 'I cannot tell you if she's going to make it.'"
Rhonda Cunningham, who is now divorced from William Cunningham, said the doctor told her, "'I've done all I can do,'" then she said, "Three days later, she woke up."
When asked what type of soup her ex-husband had fed the children, she said, "It was a new kind, some kind of steak."
Rhonda Cunningham testified that both children now have to receive regular breathing treatments as a result of the poisoning.
James Carr, 62, of Stockbridge, who is Rhonda Cunningham's uncle, sat in the courtroom with several other family members Monday. During a break in testimony, he said, "They need to put him [William Cunningham] under the jail."
The trial is scheduled to continue with more witness testimony today, at 9:30 a.m., at the Harold R. Banke Justice Center. Graham Lawson said she plans to call more than 20 witnesses, and hopes the jury will get the case by Wednesday.