Multiple charges dismissed in Kevin Hartless murder case

Published 6:25 am Monday, February 5, 2024

On Thursday, Feb. 1, David Chester Christian saw all charges against him dismissed. The former Longwood University police officer and Buckingham County resident had been one of three people accused of being involved in the death of Kevin Hartless back in January 2023. The judge in the case, however, saw things differently. 

In addition to dropping all charges against Christian during this preliminary hearing, Amherst General District Court Judge Sam Eggleston III dropped four of the charges against Joseph Frank Cunningham, the man accused of shooting Hartless, who had been in a relationship with Cunningham’s wife. Judge Eggleston dismissed charges of felony homicide, conspiracy to commit abduction and two counts of abduction. That doesn’t mean Cunningham goes free. Eggleston did certify charges of first-degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony against Cunningham, sending the case on to a grand jury, albeit with fewer charges and one less defendant. 

The case, which also includes a third defendant, Cunningham’s 19-year-old daughter Summer, stems from an incident that took place on Jan. 19, 2023. On that date around 11 a.m., Amherst County sheriff’s deputies responded to a 911 call coming from the Alhambra Road area. Dispatchers were told there was a man in the George Washington National Forest suffering from a gunshot wound.

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Deputies arrived to find the 49-year-old Hartless dead in a remote area of the forest.. At the time, 43-year-old Cunningham was arrested at the scene, charged with voluntary manslaughter. His daughter and Christian were later arrested and charged in connection with the crime in September. 

What led to death of Kevin Hartless?

It was the situation leading up to Hartless’ death that divided prosecutors and the defense. The defense attorneys argue there was no premeditation, but that it was simply a bad situation that got out of hand. The prosecution, meanwhile, claims there was an intent to kill from the beginning. 

Amherst County Commonwealth’s Attorney Lyle Carver’s case Thursday was focused on adultery. Joseph Cunningham, Carver has alleged, wanted to prove his wife was having an affair with Hartless. Joseph wanted evidence to help in his divorce and the custody battle for their younger child that would follow. The affair is not in question. Both sides acknowledge the relationship between Hartless and Joseph’s wife Jennifer. 

Carver has said Summer, and her boyfriend, Christian, agreed to help get this evidence. On Jan. 19, 2023, the trio spotted Joseph’s wife and Hartless at a store in Nelson County and started following them, trailing all the way to the national forest. At that point, Carver argued, Christian blocked Hartless in with his vehicle, with a plan to take a picture of the two together. 

A fight broke out between Hartless and Joseph Cunningham. Ronnie West, the attorney for Joseph Cunningham, told the court that during the fight, Hartless grabbed his gun and fired it toward Joseph. Joseph, in turn, grabbed Christian’s gun from the truck and shot back, killing Hartless. Joseph was just defending himself, West argued. The prosecution, meanwhile, argues it was no accident. 

On Thursday, Amherst sheriff’s deputies testified to the existence of a recording, made prior to the day of the killing. Hartless had apparently filmed a phone argument between Joseph and Jennifer, where Joseph said he would “blow his [expletive] brains out,” referring to Hartless. 

Kevin Hartless had previously worked with Joseph and the men had argued over the affair. 

Not enough evidence

But the evidence and testimony wasn’t enough to convince Judge Eggleston that this was a case of abduction, as he dismissed those charges. He also agreed there was not enough evidence that Christian had kept the gun in his truck to kill Hartless, dismissing the felony homicide charge as well. 

That left the two charges of first-degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony against Joseph. Eggleston agreed to a $50,000 secured bond for Joseph, but the prosecution immediately appealed that decision, arguing Joseph Cunningham was a danger to the community because of the charges against him. 

That appeal will be heard on Tuesday, Feb. 6, in Amherst Circuit Court. Regardless, the case against Joseph Cunningham will now go to the next term of the grand jury in Amherst County. Those jury members will decide if there’s enough probable cause to send the case to trial. There is no specific timeframe for when the grand jury will convene. 

Meanwhile, the third defendant in the case, Joseph’s daughter Summer, will have to wait a bit longer for her day in court. She currently faces five charges, including felony homicide, the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony and two counts of abduction, the same as Christian previously faced. She was released back in October on a $15,000 secured bond. 

The preliminary hearing in her case is set for March 19.