Air Force jury finds airman guilty of murdering infant son

James Cunningham is shown in an undated photo. Cunningham, a weapons load crew member on the 28th Air Craft Maintenance Squadron at Ellsworth Air Force Base, was arrested and charged March 3, 2020 by the Rapid City Police Department with aggravated child abuse for punching the baby in the head. The charge was upgraded to second-degree murder when the five-month-old died.


By ARIELLE ZIONTS | Rapid City Journal | Published: February 18, 2021

Feb. 19—A Rapid City airman was found guilty Thursday of murdering his infant son after a four-day trial at Ellsworth Air Force Base.

James Cunningham, 26, was convicted early Thursday afternoon by a jury of eight male airmen who began deliberating Wednesday morning. He was found guilty of murdering his six-month-old son Zachariah on March 3, 2020.

Only three-fourths of the jury had to agree he committed murder by acting in a way that is "inherently dangerous to another" while knowing his actions would result in death or great bodily harm. This contrasts to the unanimous verdicts required in civilian courts.

The Air Force does not disclose the tally of jury votes.

Cunningham will now have the choice to ask the military judge or jury to decide his sentence, which is a maximum of life in prison without parole. If he chooses the latter option, three-fourths of the jury must agree on the sentence. Cunningham would serve time in a federal military prison.

"The 28th Bomb Wing and the Air Force in general takes allegations of this nature seriously and fully pursues appropriate actions," Ellsworth said in a news release. "Commanders utilize the military justice system to promote justice and maintain discipline while protecting the rights of airmen accused of criminal conduct."

Cunningham was arrested by the Rapid City Police Department on March 4, 2020, the day after he admitted to punching Zachariah in the head. The charge was upgraded to murder after Zachariah died on March 12 and later transferred from the Pennington County State's Attorney Office to the Air Force.

Cunningham lied three times before confessing to punching Zachariah and medical evidence shows the infant died from being shaken and hit multiple times, the prosecution argued during the trial.

The airman didn't hit Zachariah, he made the mistake of his lifetime by setting him on the kitchen counter and medical evidence shows his injuries could have been caused by the fall, the defense countered. They also argued he falsely confessed due to pressure and stress.

The jury made its decision after hearing testimony from Zachariah's mother Caitlynn Merhoff, law enforcement, Cunningham's co-workers and medical experts, including some who treated Zachariah.

Jurors listened to the 911 call, viewed body camera footage from officers responding to the house and hospital, and watched the video of Cunningham's interview with Rapid City police officers. Cunningham did not testify.


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James T. Cunningham