Final defendant in Kevin Hartless killing gets court date changed

Published 2:07 am Friday, July 5, 2024

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Her father already had his day in court. Now Summer Cunningham will have to wait until August to learn if she’ll face murder charges as well. The 19-year-old’s hearing was continued on Tuesday, July 2, pushed back for the fourth time. She is one of three people accused of being involved in the death of Kevin Hartless back in January 2023.

The teenager currently faces felony homicide charges, along with use of a firearm in commission of a felony, conspiracy to commit abduction and two counts of abduction. Summer’s hope is for her case to be just like that of her boyfriend, former Longwood University police officer and Buckingham County resident David Chester Christian. Christian had all charges against him in the case dropped back in February. 

Summer’s father, meanwhile, Joseph Frank Cunningham, is waiting to learn how long he’ll be in jail. Joseph, who admits to being the one to shoot and kill Kevin Hartless, was found guilty by a jury of second-degree murder and using a firearm in the commission of a felony at the end of May, with the judge tossing out three other charges including aggravated murder during abduction and two counts of abduction. The jury recommended a 16-year sentence for Joseph, who will learn his fate in a sentencing hearing Sept. 18. The judge can decide to lower the sentence, but not go higher than 16 years. 

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The case 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.

Deputies arrived to find the 49-year-old Hartless dead in a remote area of the forest.. At the time, Joseph was arrested at the scene, charged at the time with voluntary manslaughter. His daughter and her boyfriend, David Chester Christian were later arrested and charged in connection with the crime in September 2023.

What led to Kevin Hartless killing? 

It was the situation leading up to Hartless’ death that has divided prosecutors and the defense during these hearings. 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 has been focused on adultery. Joseph Cunningham, Carver has alleged, wanted to prove his wife Jennifer 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. 

Carver has said Summer, and her boyfriend, Christian, agreed to help get this evidence. On Jan. 19, 2023, the trio spotted Jennifer 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. Ronnie West, the attorney for Joseph Cunningham, has 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. 

Back in February, 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.