Court of Appeals upholds Traci Cunningham’s murder conviction for shooting her adoptive mother in the back
EAGLE — An Aurora woman will spend her life in prison for murdering her adoptive mother, who was a retired nun and social studies teacher.
The Colorado Court of Appeals unanimously upheld Traci Cunningham’s first degree murder conviction in a ruling issued late Thursday, July 19.
On Thanksgiving Day 2013, Traci drove her adoptive mother, Penny Cuningham, 177 miles from Aurora to an isolated spot 15 miles up a muddy gravel road south of Gypsum. After her mother jumped from the moving car and was running for her life, Traci shot her five times, in her body and head, and at least once when Penny was already on the ground, bleeding to death.
After a 10-day trial, a jury took less than three hours to convict her.
Murder convictions are automatically appealed in Colorado. The state Court of Appeals made relatively quick work of Traci’s appeal.
“Justice requires an effective mechanism for people to appeal their convictions,” District Attorney Bruce Brown said. “The Colorado Court of Appeals reviewed the entirety of the record of the defendant’s conviction for first degree murder. Upholding the jury’s verdict confirms that the murderer is accountable and a sentence to life imprisonment must be served.
“While the legal proceedings have a long life, we must not forget the wonderful life of victim Penny Cunningham, who gave every day to better others in her work as a teacher of elementary school children and an author on Colorado history.”
Not nearly enough for another trial
After she was arrested in metro Denver a couple days after she shot her mother, detectives questioned Traci briefly as they drove her back to Eagle County. In her appeal, Traci claimed she was improperly questioned and that her confession should not have been admitted during her trial.
That may be partially correct, but in the face of the overwhelming evidence presented during the trial, that’s not enough to order a new trial, the Court of Appeals ruled.
“Even if we assume the trial court erred in admitting Cunningham’s statements to Sgt. (Dan) Loya, we conclude that any such error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” the Court of Appeals wrote in its ruling.
The Court of Appeals said prosecutors presented “overwhelming” evidence of Traci’s guilt:
• Police found a gun case and ammunition in Traci’s bedroom that matched the murder weapon.
• The police later found the gun used to murder the victim — with several bullets missing and one in the chamber — in Traci’s house.
• After her arrest, Traci tested positive for gunshot residue.
• The police also found a pair of Traci’s boots that matched footprints at the crime scene.
• The car Traci borrowed to drive her mother to Grand Junction had dirt in the wheel wells similar to the dirt on Valley Road south of Gypsum where Penny was shot and left.
• Despite her statements to the contrary, Traci’s cellphone records placed her in the remote area south of Gypsum where the victim was murdered.
• Penny’s credit card was used at a gas station near Traci’s home the day after the murder.
• In the months leading up to her murder, Penny gave Traci a deadline “to leave the home.” Prosecutors showed that Traci made up a story about a nonexistent fiance and coaxed the victim to drive to Grand Junction to meet the nonexistent fiance and his two children, who do not exist either.
• Prosecutors showed that Traci lied to police, saying she had car troubles on the way to Grand Junction and had to turn around.
• She stated that she dropped Penny off at Burger King in Steamboat Springs before returning home to Aurora. Prosecutors proved that there was no Burger King within 50 miles of Steamboat Springs.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.