By Linda Looney-Bond
A Clayton County jury found William Allen Cunningham, 44, guilty on all counts Thursday, in the soup-tampering case involving his two young children. Immediately following the announcement of the verdict, Superior Court Judge Matthew Simmons sentenced him to 100 years in prison.
Cunningham was convicted on five counts of cruelty to children and two counts of aggravated assault for placing hot peppers, lighter fluid and prescription drugs in soup that he fed to his children on three separate occasions in January of 2006. However, in sentencing, several of the cruelty charges were merged, leaving a total of five counts.
Simmons sentenced Cunningham to 20 years in prison on each of the five counts, for a total of 100 years. Simmons said the sentences will run consecutively. The sentences handed down Thursday will also run concurrently with a five-year federal sentence Cunningham was given in 2007 for communicating false information in the case.
"I'm just happy he's going to be gone forever," said the children's mother, Rhonda Cunningham, 38, of Morrow, who is William Cunningham's ex-wife .
"Now I won't have to worry about him messing with me and the kids anymore," she said. "All I've tried to do is protect my babies."
During the trial, the prosecution said that in 2006, Cunningham served his then-3-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter different varieties of Campbell's soup which he had contaminated. Each time the children ate the soup, they became sick, and were taken to the hospital. Following the third incident, Cunningham's daughter was rushed by helicopter to Egleston Children's Hospital in Atlanta for treatment.
"The facts of this case are reprehensible and incomprehensible to me," Simmons said during sentencing. "No layman could know that what was given to these children would not be fatal.
"Apparently the defendant was willing to kill his children to get some kind of compensation from Campbell's Soup," Simmons said. "To this day, I have not seen any expression of remorse or anything that is redeeming in Mr. Cunningham," he said.
Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson argued the state's case along with Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Bill Dixon.
The trial began on Monday, and both the state and defense rested their cases late Wednesday afternoon. The jury reached a verdict after an hour and 45 minutes of deliberation.
"I'm ecstatic," said Graham Lawson. "Justice was done. You never know what a jury is going to do.
"We gave them all of the evidence we had," she said. "We were hoping they would find the truth."
Following the trial, juror Darlene Thomas, 44, of Forest Park, said, "I felt he was guilty. He was there every time they [the children] got sick."
"He might not have intended to kill them, but he could have. He wanted to get paid," said Thomas.
Juror Francisco Aveldanez, 21, of Forest Park, said, "It all pointed to him. All the facts we heard. The children got sick all three times when he was left alone with them."
In response to the verdict, Cunningham's attorney, Richard Genirberg said, "I still admire the jury process. I'm grateful to the jurors for having closely paid attention."
Genirberg, who served as a court-appointed attorney in the case, said, "The defendant has announced his plans to appeal." Genirberg said another attorney will be assigned to Cunningham's appeal case, which must be filed within 30 days.
Graham Lawson said that last week, prosecutors offered Cunningham the option of pleading guilty and receiving a 15-year sentence. She said he turned that down. Then Monday, the state gave Cunningham a last option of taking a 30-year sentence before going to trial and facing the possibility of a much longer sentence. She said Cunningham opted for a jury trial instead.
Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles spokesperson Scheree Moore said her office had not yet received the sentencing information regarding Cunningham's case, but she said based on the charges on which he was convicted, Cunningham should be reviewed for parole in less than 10 years. However, the parole board is not obligated to grant parole at that time, she said.
"By law, sentences of 21 years or more are eligible for parole review after seven years, unless it is a non-parolable offense, or unless a mandatory minimum was given," said Moore.
There was no mandatory minimum sentence in Cunningham's case, and Moore said cruelty to children and aggravated assault are charges that allow for parole. However, she added, "Based on the [parole] board that we have now, they look harshly at people who commit crimes against children."