RAPID CITY, S.D. — A senior airman at Ellsworth Air Force Base has been sentenced to 18 years in federal military prison, after he was convicted of killing his 6-month-old son.

A military jury found 27-year-old James Cunningham guilty of murder Thursday in the March 2020 death of his son, Zachariah, following a four-day trial at the Air Force base. A judge then sentenced him to prison later Thursday night. As part of his sentence, Cunningham’s rank was reduced to the lowest rank for an airman and he must forfeit pay and will be dishonorably discharged.

Prosecutors said Cunningham lied three times before confessing to punching his son and that medical evidence showed the baby died from being shaken and hit multiple times.

The defense argued the baby suffered injuries when he fell from a kitchen counter where Cunningham had placed him.

The jury convicted Cunningham after hearing testimony from Zachariah’s mother Caitlynn Merhoff, law enforcement, Cunningham’s co-workers and medical experts, including some who treated the child, the Rapid City Journal reported.

Jurors listened to the 911 call, viewed body camera footage from officers responding to the house and hospital, and watched the video of Cunningham’s interview with Rapid City police officers. Cunningham did not testify, but as part of the sentencing phase, he answered questions before military Judge Col. Sterling Pendleton.

“I’ll never forgive myself for letting him down,” Cunningham said of his son. “It was my job to protect him.”

This story has been corrected to show that Cunningham will be dishonorably discharged.

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