EAGLE — An Aurora woman accused of driving her mother to a remote part of Eagle County, killing her and leaving the body lying in the middle of a gravel road has pleaded not guilty.
Traci Cunningham, 28, pleaded not guilty to first degree murder charges. If convicted, she’ll spend the rest of her life in prison. She faces life in prison without parole if convicted on first degree murder charges.
She is accused of murdering her adoptive mother, Penelope Cunningham, 60, a former nun and elementary school teacher.
She will not present a mental health defense, said Cynthia Jones, Cunningham’s attorney.
Prosecutors will not seek the death penalty, said District Attorney Bruce Brown.
TRIAL DATE SET
The trial is set for April 6. It’s scheduled for three weeks.
“We feel the evidence is strong on this case,” Brown said. “The charges being so serious, we’ll be very well prepared going into the trial.”
Cunningham is being held on $1 million bond.
“Miss Cunningham is presumed innocent and nothing I say will change that,” Brown said. “Her guilt or innocence will be determined by a jury weighing the evidence.”
Cunningham was upbeat as she sat between her two attorneys, Jones and Dan Shaffer, during the hearing that took place on Monday.
‘Lord Jesus forgive me’
A notebook found in Cunningham’s Aurora home asks God to forgive her for the lives she would take, Eagle County Sheriff’s Detective Aaron Veldheer said during the preliminary hearing.
On one page was written: “Lord Jesus forgive me for the wrongs I have done and the wrongs I will do. Forgive me for the lives I will take and save me from the depths of hell. ... I dream of angels. ... While I was looking for my friend I found my enemy.”
What police say happened that day
Cunningham told police that on Thanksgiving Day 2013, she and her adoptive were on their way from metro Denver to Grand Junction to hike and take photographs. Instead, Cunningham drove to a remote spot 15.2 miles up Gypsum Creek Road, south of Gypsum.
Cunningham said they had been arguing about her lack of housework and animal care.
When Cunningham stopped the car, her mother got out and started back up the road.
Cunningham went looking for beef jerky in the back seat of their car, but said she “encountered” the Springfield XDM 9 mm handgun that killed her mother, police said.
In one of Cunningham’s original court appearances, District Attorney Brown said Cunningham drove her mother to a remote area and shot her in the back.
Police say she shot her mother five times: in the head, abdomen and buttocks. Cunningham told investigators she does not remember pulling the trigger.
‘EVERYTHING GOES BLACK’
Cunningham told police she picked up the handgun, walked up the road and then “everything goes black.”
Cunningham said the next thing she saw was her mother on the ground and the handgun in her left hand.
She said rolled her mother over and checked for a pulse on her neck and found none. She then checked her cell phone and found she had no service in that remote area of Eagle County.
After she was taken into custody, Cunningham told police she ran back to the car and drove home (to Aurora), “pretending it was a bad dream.”
Cunningham’s mother’s body was found the next day in the road where she died.
Police say Cunningham hid the firearm and ammunition, wrapped in a blanket, under her mother’s bed.
When she was arrested she had several of her mother’s credit cards on her and had used them to buy gas in the days following her mother’s death and prior to her arrest.