Cunningham murder trial goes to jury
August 31, 2015
GEORGETOWN — A jury begins debating Tuesday morning whether Traci Cunningham murdered her mother, a former nun and school teacher.
Traci is charged with driving Penelope Cunningham from Aurora to a remote spot 15.2 miles up Gypsum Creek Road and shooting her to death on Thanksgiving Day 2013.
"Five shots into the body of Penny — into the torso, into the head. Shot while down," said District Attorney Bruce Brown in his closing arguments.
Dan Shaffer said prosecutors are over-reaching. He's is one of Traci's two court-appointed defense attorneys, along with Cynthia Jones.
"A handful of maybes does not add up to proof, Shaffer said in his closing argument.
The three week trial wrapped a week and a half early, with closing arguments Monday afternoon. District Court Judge Russell Granger sent the jury of eight men and four women home late Monday afternoon, with orders to return Tuesday morning to begin deliberations.
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Confession to the killing
The prosecution's evidence includes Traci's confession to Eagle County Detective Dan Loya, Brown said.
"After all the witnesses, the physical evidence does not corroborate Traci Cunningham's statement," Shaffer countered.
"Someone will ask, 'What are we doing here? She confessed!' Even if I did not say that, someone would have," Shaffer said.
The question, Shaffer said, is this.
"Is it reliable? Does it say what the prosecution purports it to say?" he said.
Leave the nest
What is undisputed , Brown said, is that Penny Cunningham is dead.
"It's a homicide. The defendant is the only person implicated, suggested and now known to be involved in that homicide," Brown told the jury.
Traci and Penelope had argued about housework, pet care, and that it was time for the 28-year-old Traci to leave the nest.
"The evidence shows this was a cold and calculated killing. She was killed because she was a parent who was trying to say, 'Goodbye. It's time to spread your wings,'" Brown said.
Traci hatched her murder plan at least a week and a half before that Thanksgiving, and that makes it deliberate and premeditated, Brown told the jury.
"Deliberation is two consecutive thoughts," Brown said. "It does not have to be good judgment. What murder would be?"
A notebook found in Cunningham's Aurora home asks God to forgive her for the lives she would take.
While searching the home Traci and Penelope shared, Eagle County Sheriff's Detective Aaron Veldheer found a notebook in Traci'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."
Leading cops to evidence
Brown said that during police interviews, Traci told the detectives where the murder weapon was, she described Gypsum Creek Road, the area, and the Saab that was broken down there near the site of the shooting.
Traci also told police that Penny brought the gun, not her, Brown said.
"A nun with a gun? I don't think so," Brown said.
Investigators tracked Traci's cell phone through Eagle County around the time of the shooting, Brown said.
"She went to a remote area, and she had intent."
Shaffer disputed that, saying Traci had repaid $1,900 in money she got from Penny.
"Why would you repay money if you were planning to kill someone?" Shaffer asked.
Investigators found a trace of gunshot residue on Traci's face. That residue matched the gun, the shell casings and the bullets in Penny Cunningham's body, Brown said.
Dirt from that part of Gypsum Creek Road was found on the car Traci was driving, and on Traci's boots, Brown said.
To cover her tracks, Brown said Traci sent text messages to her mother's phone after the shooting, at one point while holding both phones in the back seat of her Hyundai.
'Not birds she killed'
Traci had said they were headed to Grand Junction to visit friends, on their way to Arizona to meet with a boyfriend who Brown said does not even exist.
Between 4:31 p.m. and 5:32 p.m. that Thanksgiving Day, she drove her mother up Gypsum Creek Road, but not down.
"She was going to kill two birds with one stone. Those were not birds she killed," Brown said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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