Trial set to begin for airman charged with murdering infant son


Siandhara Bonnet

Rapid City Journal, S.D.

Opening statements in a murder trial at Ellsworth Air Force Base could be made as soon as Tuesday following jury selection, Ellsworth officials said Monday.

James Cunningham, a weapons load crew member on the 28th Air Craft Maintenance Squadron, pleaded not guilty to the murder charge of his five-month-old son Zachariah under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Pre-trial began Monday afternoon with prosecution and defense attorneys submitting exhibits to court records.

The defense objected to a number of photos the prosecution submitted that showed bruising and injuries on the infant while he was in the hospital. Military judge Col. Sterling Pendleton said those exhibits would not be submitted to the record at the time but did not make an official ruling.

Cunningham elected to have a jury trial, which will consist of eight officers and enlisted personnel. If Cunningham is found guilty, three-quarters of the jury must agree on a sentence. The jury will be selected Tuesday.

Cunningham attended the pre-trial in an Air Force dress uniform. The child’s mother and Cunninghma’s ex-fiance Caitlynn Merhoff were not in attendance Monday.

Cunningham 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 nine days later after being airlifted for treatment at a hospital in Sioux Falls for a brain bleed.

Cunningham appeared in Pennington County Court in March until the Air Force requested to take over the case in early May.


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