Pattern of abuse does not excuse Cunningham murder, DA says

Students and staff at the Aurora elementary school where Penny Cunningham taught put together a remembrance book, filled with photos and anecdotes. Among them was Penny's favorite, "Be nice." District Attorney Bruce Brown holds up the book during Wednesday's sentencing hearing for Traci Cunningham, Penny's adopted daughter. Traci was sentenced to life in prison for murdering Penny.
Randy Wyrick| |

GEORGETOWN — Traci Cunningham, 29, will end her life in prison, and as awful as that might be, the beginning of her life might be worse.

“The child was subjected to things that are unspeakable and was probably not loved until she met someone with unconditional love to give. Penny Cunningham gave that love, and gave and gave and gave,” said Dan Shaffer, one of Traci Cunningham’s two defense attorneys, with Cynthia Jones.

Traci Cunningham was sentenced Wednesday to life in prison for driving her adoptive mother, a retired nun and elementary school teacher, 177 miles from Aurora to an isolated spot 15 miles south of Gypsum and shooting her to death on Thanksgiving Day 2013. She begins her life sentence having already served 641 days in jail.

Shaffer said horrific things like that don’t happen in a vacuum.

“Sometimes the pattern is not realized for many years, but there is a connection,” Shaffer said.

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Traci Cunningham’s father was imprisoned for sexual assault on a child, Shaffer said. She, of course, was the child. Her birth mother was imprisoned for sexually abusing and exploiting her, Shaffer said.

Her father and mother were not the only ones who abused Traci Cunningham, Shaffer said. By the time she was 3 years old, she carried no evidence of a hymen, Shaffer said.

“We are here because as a society, we have failed the child,” Shaffer said.

Chose not to change

District Attorney Bruce Brown was sympathetic, but said Traci Cunningham’s life sentence is appropriate.

“It is clear that the defendant suffered an absolutely horrible childhood, from her birth until age 7,” Brown said. “Then Traci was given an opportunity to change her life.”

But she chose not to, said Penny Cunningham’s twin brothers, Peter and David Cunningham.

“I wish Traci had taken a different path in her life, but ultimately she took the path that was most familiar to her: manipulating, cheating, stealing, lying and ultimately murder, to get what she wanted,” David Cunningham said.

Penny Cunningham adopted Traci knowing the problems she faced, her brothers said.

“Penny spent many years trying to help Traci develop into a good productive person,” Peter Cunningham said.

Traci Cunningham is the product of a childhood so abusive and cruel that David Cunningham said he would not wish that on my worst enemy. And yet …

“She seems determined to punish everyone for what happened to her as a child,” he said.

Forgiveness runs in their family

There is forgiveness in Penny Cunningham and her brothers, Brown said.

“I’m not mad at Traci for the choices she made, but I am disappointed that she passed up the many opportunities she was given,” David Cunningham said.

Traci Cunningham can never be free.

“This defendant will be dangerous for the rest of her life. Life in prison without parole is appropriate, even in light of the hardships she might have suffered,” Brown said.

Still, Penny, Peter and David Cunningham are now two in this world who used to be three.

Peter’s voice cracked and he fought back tears as finished addressing District Court Judge Russell Granger.

“The good that she did will live on. We miss our sister,” Peter Cunningham said, wiping away a tear.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and

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