A Cedartown man will avoid the death penalty after pleading guilty in the murder of an infant, but he will spend the rest of his life behind bars without parole.
29-year-old Dustin Drew Putnal pled guilty this morning and was sentenced to life for the death of Ella Grayce Pointer in late 2016.
District Attorney Jack Browning said in a press release following the sentencing that the "resolution of the case was with the approval and blessing of Ella Grayce’s family."
He added in the same release the plea followed a May ruling from the Georgia Supreme Court decision on a pre-trial appeal that would have made his job harder in securing a death penalty conviction.
Browning explained the plea deal with Putnal followed this ruling from the state's high court, and said in his release this morning that “the Supreme Court wrote that ‘the information that the trial court erroneously revealed to the prosecution team cannot simply be extracted from the minds of those with whom it has been improperly shared … [and] although it is impossible to know with certainty before trial whether and to precisely what extent Putnal has been prejudiced, it is conceivable that, without additional curative measures, he could turn out to have been prejudiced to an extent that would require any conviction or sentence to be set aside.’”
He said in the release he was “angered and frustrated by the fact that, although the Supreme Court’s ruling in this important case had nothing to do with the actions of his office or police, the now unavoidable reality is this – the effect of the Supreme Court’s ruling, in light of the trial court’s error, has not only handicapped the ability of the District Attor-ney’s Office to pursue the death penalty with confidence, but has placed any trial and resulting conviction and sentence in this case in jeopardy for years to come.”
As a result, Browning added that “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.”
“This has been a nightmare for the family that cannot be put into words – from the loss of Ella Grayce, to the amount of time that has passed and uncertainty concerning the case against Putnal as it moved through the court system,” he said.
He remained in frequent contact with Ella's family throughout the case, and he said they approved of the sentence as a way to bring closure to those who were closest to Ella.
“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,” Browning said. “The sentence was not what I believe Putnal’s crime deserved, but given the uncertainty of the case following the Supreme Court ruling, the Putnal’s sentence provided the family with what they have always wanted with the case, and that is definite closure and the comfort of knowing that it is over.”
He asked “for the public to respect the family’s privacy, and to offer them their prayers and support as they move forward and continue to heal from this horrible tragedy.”
“This resolution has given the family the closure and certain finality that they have prayed for and asked of our office, and they now wish to focus their thoughts on honoring their memories of Ella Grayce and her life, not on the man who took her from them,” Browning said.
Browning planned to seek the death penalty in a filing back in April 2017, months after Putnal’s arrest first on a probation violation charge, then indictment from the grand jury on malice murder, two counts of felony murder, aggravated battery, two counts of cruelty to children and a lone count of aggravated sexual battery.
Ella Grayce Pointer, who was 21-months-old at the time of her death on Oct. 30, 2016, was found not breathing by medical personnel at Putnal's home on Adamson Drive two days prior. Further investigation by the Polk County Police and GBI determined the toddler was not accidental.
Putnal's case began making its way through the Tallapoosa Circuit Su-perior Court under Judge Meng Lim back in 2017, after he was indicted and later arraigned in April of last year.
In June 2017, Putnal’s attorneys presented the court with motions to be heard without notice to the prosecution. The motions requested two mental health experts retained by the defense be allowed access to Putnal at the detention center where he was incarcerated.
On June 27, 2017, the judge signed two orders proposed by the de-fense, each of which stated that the order "shall be confidential and shall not be disclosed until such direction from the court." But three days later, the trial judge – acting on his own and without prior notice to the defense — filed both motions and orders publicly with the clerk of court and had the motions served to the state.
After starting an appeal in December 2017 over the decision, in May the Georgia State Supreme Court ruled that revealing the motion was a mistake.