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Prosecutors: Ellsworth Air Force Base airman accused of murder admitted to hitting son in police interview

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.

PENNINGTON COUNTY SHERRIFF'S OFFICE

By ARIELLE ZIONTS | The Rapid City Journal | Published: February 13, 2021

RAPID CITY, S.D. (Tribune News Service) — After telling detectives three different stories about how his son developed a brain bleed, a Rapid City airman confessed to punching the infant in the head after becoming frustrated that he wouldn't stop crying.

"Now I have to face my fiancé and tell her that I hit my kid and put him in the hospital," Senior Airman James Cunningham told detectives in a video played during his murder trial at Ellsworth Air Force Base on Friday. "I'm in trouble."

The 1.5-hour long interview video played during the second day of the trial against Cunningham, a 26-year-old charged with murdering his six-month-old son Zachariah on March 3, 2020.

Cunningham and several people attending the trial lightly cried as they listened to the tape along with the eight male airmen on the jury.

Cunningham was watching Zachariah while his ex-fiancé worked on the the afternoon of March 3, prosecutors and defense lawyers agree. He had his roommate call 911 around 5:30 p.m. after the infant became limp and unresponsive.

Zachariah was rushed to the emergency room where doctors found a bruise on his forehead and a brain bleed during a CT scan. The baby and his mother, Caitlynn Merhoff, were flown to Sioux Falls for advanced treatment but Zachariah died nine days later.

Prosecutors say Cunningham's confession proves he's guilty, and medical evidence will show that Zachariah's injuries align with a punch to the head as well as being shaken.

Cunningham didn't hit Zachariah, he made the mistake of his lifetime by briefly setting him on the kitchen counter, resulting in his fall, defense lawyers said during their opening statement on Thursday.

His "so-called confession" started with a question he asked during a long interrogation where detectives were determined to obtain a confession while Cunningham worried about his son, they said.

Cunningham met Merhoff at the hospital on March 3 and both consented to being interviewed at the police station. He sat in an interrogation room for 1.5 hours until detectives arrived, his lawyers say.

Rapid City Detective Seth Walker began the interview at 10 p.m. and had help from Jamin Hartland, an investigator with the Pennington County Sheriff's Office. The pair spoke in a conversational tone, never raised their voice and avoided asking leading questions.

The interview

The video of the interview was played on a screen visible only to the jurors, not to media or anyone else in the courtroom.

Hartland began the interview by telling Cunningham that he was free to leave at any time and wouldn't be arrested that day.

Cunningham described his day on March 3 before going into his first explanation of how Zachariah — who he said was extremely fussy and crying a lot that afternoon — hurt his head.

The airman said he was letting his dog out when he "heard a loud bang" coming from Zachariah's jumper. He saw a red mark on Zachariah's head and assumed he must of hit it against the wall or one of the toys hanging from the jumper.

Cunningham said Zachariah seemed fine but later went limp and became unresponsive.

"I just feel so bad because I'm supposed to be his guardian, his dad. I feel like I failed him as a father," he said.

Cunningham went over the details of his first explanation two more times before Hartland asked if he knew about his son's injury. He has a brain bleed, the airman responded.

"It takes a pretty serious injury for that to occur," Hartland said as Cunningham began to lightly cry. "We know that he did not get this injury from the jumper ... what happened man?"

Cunningham said he was also surprised that such a serious injury could occur that way. He began to sob before saying, "I dropped my kid, I dropped my kid."

The airman said he's ashamed to tell Merhoff he dropped Zachariah, and is afraid people will think he abused him.

"I couldn't even be man enough to tell my own fiancé what happened," he said.

Cunningham said he was feeding his son on the couch when he dropped the bottle, bent down to pick it up, and accidentally dropped Zachariah, who fell on his head.

"It's time to start giving the truth. You can't keep lying about this," a two or three-foot drop doesn't cause a brain bleed, Hartland said.

"I didn't do anything to him," Cunningham said after Hartland asked if he was frustrated since Zachariah wouldn't stop crying.

"I dropped him, but not from sitting down, I'm sorry guys," Cunningham said as he began his third explanation.

The airman said he had a "lack of judgment" when he placed his son — who couldn't sit up for more than a few seconds — on the kitchen counter while grabbing his bottle. Zachariah fell and hit his head on the ground.

"How many times are we going to dance around this," babies can survive multi-story falls, Hartland said.

Being a father is tough, and tempers can get out of hand, he told Cunningham. You can't change the past, you can only impact the future. What kind of man do you want to be now?

"I didn't hit my kid," I told myself I'd never hurt my children, I would be a better man than my father, Cunningham responded.

"Help us help the doctors" by telling us the truth, Hartland said.

Cunningham paused and began to lightly cry.

"Can I really hit my kid ... did I really get so mad at him that I just hit him ... how can I not remember something like that?" Cunningham asked. "I didn't mean to do it ... I put my kid in the hospital."

Cunningham said he remembers getting upset because Zachariah wouldn't stop crying and "I just socked my kid" once in the forehead while he was lying in his bassinet. I didn't know what to do and instead of asking my downstairs roommate for help "I took it out on my own son," he said.

The airman said his son continued to cry but eventually calmed down, drank a bottle — but appeared disoriented — and slept.

Some time before he became unresponsive, Zachariah smiled at me like I'm his guardian which made my heart sink because I wasn't, Cunningham said.

The interview wrapped up, detectives took Cunningham's phone as evidence and the airman spoke with an Ellsworth supervisor who told him to wait at the police station.

The detectives left the room after explaining that they wouldn't let Cunningham call Merhoff to see how Zachariah was doing but they would try to get in touch with her to share that he wants her to call.

Be honest, "am I in trouble," Cunningham asked Paul Stevens, an investigator who later came into the room.

There might be prosecution, Stevens said. Possibly child abuse, he said when Cunningham inquired about the charge.

"So I won't be able to see my kid?" Cunningham asked.

Cunningham said he wanted to drive to Sioux Falls to be with Zachariah and Merhoff but was afraid his fiancé would turn him away since "I put her kid's life in jeopardy." That's a possibility, Stevens said.

Cunningham was arrested the next day on a charge of felony child abuse. The charge was upgraded to murder after Zachariah died and later transferred from the Pennington County State's Attorneys Office to the Air Force.

ER doctor testifies

Jurors also listened to testimony from Adam Newman, the doctor who treated Zachariah at the Monument Health emergency room.

Newman said he was told an infant having trouble breathing was arriving and that the father said his baby had hit his head while playing in his jumper.

"He showed very little signs of life" and there was a swelling and discoloration on his forehead, Newman said.

He said the CT scan showed Zachariah had two kinds of internal bleeding: bleeding within his brain tissue, and bleeding between his skull and the brain. Both injuries put pressure on the brain and brain stem, which regulate a person's ability to breath and circulate oxygen.

Newman arranged for Zachariah to be flown to Sioux Falls where there is pediatric neurosurgeon and intensive care unit.

Zachariah's injury could have been caused by a fall from a counter but he believes it was most likely from an intentional injury, Newman testified.

The trial resumes Monday morning and could last through Feb. 19.

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