He could have faced the death penalty. Instead, a Polk County man pleaded guilty Thursday in the murder of 21-month-old Ella Grayce Pointer.
Now, Dustin Drew Putnal will spend the rest of his life in prison, without the possibility of parole. Though the case is finally closed, the plea frustrated the District Attorney, who said Putnal’s punishment wasn’t enough for his crimes.
“The only way to resolve this case at this point with the finality and certainty that the family of Ella Grayce – and our community as a whole – deserves was to pursue a conviction and sentence through a guilty plea that will guarantee Putnal will spend the rest of his life behind bars with no chance of ever being released, and that he will have no opportunity or basis to ever appeal his conviction and sentence,” District Attorney Jack Browning said.
It was a disturbing story from the beginning: A little girl left in the care of her mother’s boyfriend was later found unresponsive with head trauma. She also had been sexually assaulted.
Ella died in the hospital on Oct. 30, 2016. “JusticeforEllaGrayce” was soon a social media hashtag as her family and community waited for answers. Investigators zeroed in on Putnal, and a month after the girl’s death, he was charged.
Though Putnal didn’t go to trial, Georgia’s Supreme Court weighed in earlier this year on an appeal, ruling that a judge should not have allowed prosecutors to learn that Putnal’s attorneys wanted him evaluated by mental health experts.
In June 2017, Putnal’s attorneys requested that he be evaluated by two mental health experts. The request was made in “ex parte” motions — meaning the prosecutors would not be notified — in order to not reveal their planned defense ahead of the trial. The judge signed the motions, but made them public instead of sealing them.
Prosecutors said they had expected Putnal’s mental health would have been a defense at his trial. But Georgia’s high court ruled the judge made a mistake.
The state Supreme Court wrote in its ruling that it was impossible to know whether the judge’s actions could affect the outcome of the case. Justices added that it could be so prejudicial that it would require any later conviction or sentence for Putnal to be set aside.
The high court’s ruling “handicapped” prosecutors from seeking the death penalty, Browning said. Even if Putnal was convicted and sentenced to death, he could have appealed the decision, a process that could have continued for several years.
Browning said though it wasn’t the sentence he wanted, the little girl’s family approved of the plea.
“Ella’s family has made clear that they approve of this sentence because it brings certain and definite closure, without the worry of appeal-after-appeal-after-appeal over the next unknown number of years, and now they can live their lives without the constant fear that Putnal’s conviction might be overturned for some reason and he be allowed to go free,” he said.
Putnal’s attorney, Gerald Word, said the plea brought closure to all sides.
“We felt like this was an appropriate resolution,” Word told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Mr. Putnal was remorseful and was willing to accept his punishment.”
It was not known Friday which state prison Putnal would be assigned.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.