by: Daniel Tepfer
One by one, the family of Daniel Speller stood up in court Tuesday morning and, facing a jumpsuit-clad Jimmy Cunningham, tearfully asked him why he felt a need to gun down the unarmed Speller and then drag his body through the city’s North End.
“You took his life in such a brutal way, I don’t think there is a place in society for you,” said Speller’s mother, Christine Speller, tears running down her face.
But instead, Cunningham, who had been Speller’s landlord, reiterated the same rambling defense he had used on the jury that convicted him of murder and possession of a pistol without a permit — contending that he had killed Speller in self-defense.
“Yes, I did shoot him. but I did not intend to hurt him. I never intended to hurt anyone,” he told the judge.
“This was a brutal killing of a defenseless man. You treated Mr. Speller like he was not human,” the judge told him.
Speller, 32, an employee of Hearst Media Services, was killed following an argument on the front porch of a house on Worth Street, where he rented an apartment from Cunningham. He was shot in the upper chest, arm and leg after midnight on Aug. 6, 2012.
During the trial, Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Joseph Harry presented a neighbor who testified he had been playing a video game when he heard shots next door. He said he looked out his window and saw Cunningham in a crouch facing the porch. He then saw Cunningham grab the victim by the ankle and drag him off the porch.
Another neighbor testified Cunningham then forced him to help load Speller’s body on an outside rack attached to the back of Cunningham’s Hummer. The witness said he didn’t feel he had much choice about helping Cunningham; he had, after all, just shot someone.
Cunningham admitted on the stand he shot Speller, but claimed he did so because he feared for his life. He said he had gotten into an argument with Speller, who knocked him to the ground and began kicking him. As he lay on the ground he said he pulled out a handgun and it suddenly went off, “Pow, pow pow.”
Although the state medical examiner testified the chest wound would have resulted in Speller living no more than two minutes, Cunningham said Speller ran off after being shot. He said he then went looking for the victim and found him lying against some steps down the street.
Concerned that the victim was seriously injured, Cunningham said he grabbed Speller in a headlock and dragged him to the rack behind his Hummer, lifting the body onto it with the neighbor’s help. He then covered it with an old tarp.
Asked by Harry why he didn’t put the injured man inside his vehicle, Cunningham replied: “I would have had to take the stuff out that I had in there to get him in.”
A woman was on her way home from a concert when she noticed a man’s arm sticking out from under the tarp, dragging on the street behind Cunningham’s Hummer. She said she was terrified and that she quickly drove home and told family members what she saw.
Cunningham testified that in his haste to get the victim to the hospital he took a turn hard — only to hear Speller’s body tumble off the rack.
“I got out and saw him lying in the roadway and I began smacking him and saying `come on, come on,’ I wanted to make sure he was still alive,” Cunningham testified.
In fact, Speller had died. Cunningham said he fastened the body back on the rack using bungee cords, afraid that if police saw him they would shoot him. Then he drove to his grandmother’s house on Priscilla Street. Once there, he parked his Hummer in the woods behind the house and began stuffing the body into plastic garbage bags.
“It started to rain and I wasn’t going to let him get nasty,” he explained.
Cunningham’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender James Pastore, urged the judge to be lenient with his client, contesting the prosecutor’s contention that Cunningham was about to bury Speller’s body when caught by police. He argued Cunningham panicked after killing Speller.
“His grandmother’s house was a place of safety for Mr. Cunningham, like a dove who has a broken wing and returns to its nest,” he said.