Thomas Cunningham exits the courtroom in Upshur County Sheriff's custody after he entered a guilty plea Friday morning. (Photo by Katie Kuba)

Upshur man in ‘shaken baby syndrome’ case pleads guilty to both counts of death of a child by child abuse

BUCKHANNON – An Upshur County man who admitted that he’s responsible for the deaths of his girlfriend’s two children pleaded guilty Friday in Upshur County Circuit Court.

Thomas W. Cunningham, 28, of Buckhannon, was indicted on two felony counts of death of a child by a guardian or custodian or other person by child abuse during the May 2023 term of Circuit Court.  

The charges came in November and December 2022 after a two-year-old boy and his one-year-old brother died from blunt-force traumatic brain injuries consistent with ‘shaken baby syndrome’ they suffered while in Cunningham’s care. The incident occurred Nov. 28, 2022, with the 2-year-old passing away after about a day and a half and the 1-year-old dying approximately 12 days later, according to court records.

The case had been set to go to trial this month, but Upshur County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Hinkle and Cunningham’s attorney, Tom Dyer, reached a plea agreement on March 8. The agreement said if Cunningham took responsibility for the two infants’ deaths and pleaded guilty to both counts of death of a child by child abuse, Hinkle would not recommend a 0-to-50-year extended supervision period upon Cunningham’s release from prison. He still faces a potential sentence of life in prison.

Twenty-sixth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Jacob Reger, who presided over the case, asked if Cunningham was aware that each count carried a sentence of 15 years to life and that his potential exposure was 30 years to life in prison, and he said yes.

Reger also informed Cunningham that just because Hinkle wasn’t recommending the extended supervision did not mean Reger had to abide by that recommendation, meaning the judge could include the extended supervision period in Cunningham’s sentence.

“My understanding is that you are going to admit you killed these two children, but because you say you can’t recollect all the details, the state is going to lay the factual basis for the guilty pleas,” Reger said. “You do acknowledge that they died at your hands?”

“Yes, your honor,” Cunningham replied.

Hinkle said that before the plea hearing, Cunningham had undergone a psychiatric evaluation and was found to be competent, able to understand criminal responsibility and to have no “diminished capacity” from drug use.

Hinkle said the medical examiner’s autopsy report from September 2023 indicated the cause of death for both children was non-accidental homicide as a result of suffering internal and external contusions and hemorrhaging in the brain.

“The incapacitation was immediate for the children,” Hinkle said. “They had subdermal hemorrhaging — bleeding in the brain – and retinol hemorrhages and brain swelling, and that’s what ultimately led to their deaths.”

Hinkle said although Cunningham had told the police he had taken a Percocet on the night of the incident, laboratory results indicated that fentanyl, marijuana and Benadryl were in his system.

Reger accepted the plea. He noted Cunningham will undergo a psychiatric evaluation, and a pre-sentencing investigation will be completed before his sentencing hearing. Cunningham will also be placed on the West Virginia State Police’s Registry for Child Abuse or Neglect for 10 years upon release.

Following the hearing, Hinkle said he had given Cunningham only one small consideration – not recommending 0-50 years of extended supervision – for a reason.

“I wasn’t willing to dismiss the counts because of the nature of the charges, so really, that’s the only consideration I could give him,” the prosecuting attorney said. “If he had gone to trial and gotten convicted on both counts, he’s in the same position now that he would be if he went to trial.”

“I think his hope is, by taking responsibility, he won’t get the maximum, but that’s up to the judge,” he added.

Hinkle called the crime horrific.

“I’ve had a number of these cases I’ve dealt with over the years, but never two at one time,” he said. “At least it seems like he’s taking responsibility for what he did, because usually when these cases go to trial, there’s always the finger-pointing and people saying, ‘Well, I didn’t do it, it was the mother,’ but this way we avoid that now.”

The children’s mother, Ciera Nicole Gillespie, of Buckhannon, was indicted on two felony counts of child neglect resulting in death, also in May 2023. She is currently incarcerated in the Central Regional Jail on a $200,000 cash-only bond.

According to the original complaint, on Nov. 28, 2022, when Gillespie returned home from Walmart, Cunningham reportedly came running out with the two-year-old, who had blood coming out of his nose and mouth and was limp. Upshur EMS was called to the scene and transported both infants to St. Joseph’s Hospital and then to Ruby Memorial Hospital.

Upshur County Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Rodney Rolenson interviewed a WVU Medicine doctor who said the manner of death for the two-year-old was “traumatic injury consistent [with] ‘shaken baby’ [syndrome], and that the retinal injuries were the worst he had seen in 10 years.”

News Feed

Subscribe to remove popups, or just enjoy this free story and support our local businesses!