The airman from Ellsworth Air Force Base accused of murdering his infant son in March has had his case transferred from the Pennington County Court to the Air Force’s justice system.
James Cunningham, 26, was charged March 3 with aggravated child abuse for allegedly admitting to punching his baby in the head at their Rapid City home.
His charge was upgraded to second-degree murder after the five-month-old died nine days later after being airlifted for treatment at a hospital in Sioux Falls.
Cunningham had already made several appearances at the Pennington County Court when the Air Force requested to take over the case in early May, said Lara Roetzel, chief deputy at the state’s attorney office.
The Air Force has the power to take jurisdiction over cases involving airmen even if the crime occurred off base, Roetzel said.
Roetzel said her office consented to the transfer because her office is already crunched for time due to coronavirus-related furloughs. She also said military court is comparable to civilian court, while military prisons are tougher than South Dakota ones.
The Air Force works “towards maximizing jurisdiction over our airmen,” Lt. Joshua Sinclair, an Ellsworth spokesman, said when asked why the Air Force wanted to handle the case. “The military justice system is designed to promote justice and to maintain good order and discipline in our service.”
Cunningham is charged with murder under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for engaging in an act that is “inherently dangerous to another” and shows a “wanton disregard of human life,” Sinclair said.
He said the maximum punishment is life in prison without parole, a dishonorable discharge, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade and forfeiture of all pay. Cunningham would have faced a mandatory punishment of life without parole under South Dakota law.
The airman was transferred from the Pennington County Jail to Ellsworth and if convicted would be sent to a military prison, Sinclair said.
Cunningham’s next court date is an Article 32 preliminary hearing on June 22, when a judge will decide whether probable cause exists for the case to move forward, Sinclair said. Such hearings are usually open to the public but the base is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Sinclair said Cunningham can use a military defense lawyer or hire his own civilian attorney. The military court system allows for plea deals or trials, which are decided by a military judge or a panel of officer members and sometimes enlisted members.
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