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Cunningham murder trial begins Monday

Traci Cunningham, right, speaks with her public defender, Carolin Lopez, during Cunningham's first appearance in District Court on Monday in Eagle. Cunningham is being held on suspicious of first-degree murder after the body of her mother was found near Gypsum.
Justin McCarty | jmccarty@vaildaily.com |

The charges

First degree murder. Mandatory life sentence

Tampering with evidence. Up to 18 months in prison

Crime of violence, 2 counts

Crime of violence

Theft

EAGLE — Prosecutors say Traci Cunningham drove her adoptive mother to a remote part of Eagle County and shot her to death.

Traci Cunningham said she’s not guilty, and her defense attorneys say she suffers from PTSD and bipolar disorder.

A jury will decide her fate beginning today as jury selection begins for her trial.

Traci Cunningham has been in the Eagle County jail for a year and a half, following her arrest at a Front Range bagel shop in late 2013. In the final pretrial hearing, she told District Court Judge Russell Granger that even though she was obviously not feeling well after her medications were changed, she was ready for the trial to begin.

“I don’t want to be here any longer. I’m sick of these people,” Traci Cunningham told Granger.

Granger expressed concern about Traci Cunningham’s ability to participate in her own defense.

“It could impact the outcome of that trial, and that could impact the rest of your life. Do you understand that?” Granger asked.

“Yes, your honor,” Traci Cunningham said.

Granger pressed ahead questioning Traci Cunningham.

“I’ve been speaking with you for the last five minutes I can see you’re having a difficult time paying attention, and you appear to be in pain. The trial lasts three weeks. Are you sure you’re going to be able to make that?” Granger asked.

Traci Cunningham said she would.

“I understand that you’re willing to go through with this. I want you to understand that you could be replacing expediency with permanency.”

“It is her desire to go to trial,” said Cynthia Jones, one of Cunningham’s attorneys.

Jones said Traci Cunningham has some military service, claims PTSD and bipolar disorder, and said her client suffered abuse at the hands of her boyfriend.

Jones also expressed frustration, saying she had been asking since February for Traci Cunningham’s medications to be adjusted, as they prepared for trial. They were not adjusted until last week, Jones said.

“It’s a little frustrating,” Jones said.

Among the evidence

Traci Cunningham claims she was in a heated argument with her mother, Penelope Cunningham, 60, a former nun and retired elementary school teacher, just before her mother was shot, Jones said.

A notebook found in Traci Cunningham’s Aurora home asks God to forgive her for the lives she would take, police said.

While searching the home Traci and Penelope Cunningham shared, Eagle County Sheriff’s Detective Aaron Veldheer found a notebook in Traci Cunningham’s room. 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 happened that day

Traci Cunningham told police that on Thanksgiving Day 2013, she and Penelope Cunningham were on their way from metro Denver to Grand Junction to hike and take photographs. Instead, Traci Cunningham drove to a remote spot 15.2 miles up Gypsum Creek Road, south of Gypsum, where she stopped the car and Penelope Cunningham got out and started walking up the road.

Traci Cunningham said that after arguing with her mother about her lack of housework and animal care, she went looking for beef jerky in the back seat of their car, but she “encountered” the Springfield XDM 9 mm handgun that killed her mother.

Police say Penelope Cunningham was shot five times: in the head, abdomen and buttocks. Traci Cunningham told investigators she does not remember pulling the trigger. Traci told police she picked up the handgun, walked up the road and then “everything goes black.”

In an earlier court appearance, District Attorney Bruce Brown said Traci Cunningham drove her mother to a remote area and shot her in the back.

Traci 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.

During questioning, Traci Cunningham told police she ran back to the car and drove home (to Aurora), “pretending it was a bad dream.”

Penelope Cunningham’s body was found the next day in the road where she died.

According to police testimony, Traci Cunningham hid the firearm and ammunition, wrapped in a blanket, under Penelope Cunningham’s bed. When she was arrested she had several of Penelope Cunningham’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.


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