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Soup-tampering defendant 'slammed son's face into cake'

By Linda Looney-Bond

lbond@news-daily.com

The great aunt of two Clayton County children at the center of a tainted-soup trial underway at the Harold R. Banke Justice Center, took the stand Tuesday and became teary-eyed.

Linda Willis paused, and began to cry when she testified that the defendant, William Cunningham, 44, of Stockbridge, verbally abused his young son with "some pretty nasty names."

Cunningham is on trial in Clayton County Superior Court, charged with the 2006 alleged poisoning of his then 3-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter, by placing lighter fluid and prescription drugs in Campbell's Soup that he fed to the children on three separate occasions.

When questioned by Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson about Cunningham's relationship with his son, Willis described an alleged incident at the toddler's first birthday party. "Bill [William Cunningham] took [the boy's] face and slammed it down into his cake," she said. "We had to get the cake out of his nose and mouth, so he could breathe. Once he was able to breathe, he started crying," she said. "Bill thought it was funny," said Willis.

Cunningham is currently being tried on state charges, but is already serving a federal sentence in the case, after he pleaded guilty to communicating false information. Cunningham admitted to falsely stating that the soup that sickened his children was factory-contaminated. He was sentenced to five years in prison in April 2007, according to federal authorities.

Cunningham had hoped to sue the Campbell's Soup Company to make money, federal authorities said.

On day two of the trial, Graham Lawson also called to the stand Schnese Boddie, a registered nurse who came in contact with the two children when they were taken to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta in Morrow on Jan. 29, 2006.

Boddie said Cunningham told hospital staff that the children became sick after he fed them Campbell's soup. She described the condition of the 18-month-old girl: "When I received her, she was intubated -- had tubes down her throat -- and she was unconscious," said Boddie.

She said the girl's parents brought the chicken noodle soup they said the children had ingested to the hospital. "I looked at the soup, and the soup was green. It kind of made me a little dizzy to where I had to sit down a couple of minutes," Boddie said.

State's witness, Dr. Ifeoma Eke, testified that she was the pediatrician who treated the children during that same visit to the hospital on Jan. 29, 2006.

"I was worried that she [18-month-old girl] might be drifting into a state of unconsciousness," Eke said. "She was unable to sit up. I was very worried she might drift into a state of coma.

"Because of her state, we decided to transport her by helicopter," to Egleston Children's hospital in Atlanta.

The children now live with their mother and grandmother in Morrow, according to witness testimony.

Graham Lawson said the state will continue to present witnesses today in the trial being heard by Clayton County Chief Superior Court Judge Matthew Simmons.

Cunningham is charged with five counts of cruelty to children and two counts of aggravated assault. Graham Lawson said if convicted on all of the charges, Cunningham could face a prison sentence of "100 years, for sure, maybe 140."