In the photos, the nine-year-old’s face eye is swollen shut. It would remain that way for days.
It is the face of a child beaten up by her father.
“She would ask me, ‘Was she going to lose her eye?” said her mother, Cristal Zuniga of Longview. “Was she going to go blind?”
Her ex-husband – a man with a history of domestic violence – was charged with felony injury to a child. Zuniga told the prosecutor she wanted her ex-husband prosecuted to the fullest. She said the prosecutor promised he would seek a conviction.
So she was shocked when she found out that prosecutor, Smith County Assistant District Attorney Jacob Putman, cut a plea deal last year July that dropped the felony charge and let him plead guilty to misdemeanor family violence assault on his new wife. Both assaults occurred on the same night.
Putman did so without asking his bosses in violation of the policy of the district’s attorney’s office.
“The system totally failed that little girl,” said Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham, Putman’s boss. “If our system is anything, it should be a protector of children.”
Putman is the same prosecutor involved in a controversial case in which he dropped a 2015 felony assault on a peace officer charge down to a misdemeanor on Dabrett Black without permission from his bosses. That also violated the policy of the district attorney’s office. Black had severely beat a deputy in that case.
Last summer, dash cam video captured Black fleeing from police and ramming the car of another sheriff’s deputy. Black was out on bond when he shot and killed Trooper Damon Allen on Thanksgiving Day.
After Bingham found out about Putman’s actions in the Black case, he launched an audit of his felony prosecutors. He released that audit Tuesday.
The audit found Putman had reduced or dismissed at least 78 cases in violation of the policy since 2013. Another current prosecutor, who Putman supervised, was a close second with 47 cases. Another former prosecutor came in with 42 incorrectly handled cases.
“I’m very ashamed that this is a part of my legacy,” said Bingham, who is not running for reelection.
Putman is running as a Republican for District Attorney. He did not respond to requests for comment.
He previously told WFAA earlier this month that he misunderstood the policy. He said he believed a 2013 policy change gave prosecutors like him the authority to reduce felonies to misdemeanors and to dismiss felonies as part of a plea bargain. “I don’t think I was the only one with that understanding,” he said earlier this month.
However, the 2013 policy he cites states, “Dismissals still need to be signed by either the First Asst., or the District Attorney.”
Three of Putman’s incorrectly handled cases occurred after he was reprimanded in August 19, 2016, for not following the policy that said he had to get permission from the district attorney or his second in command before dismissing or reducing a felony charge.
“This rule applies to any case that might be dismissed,” the memo said. “There are no exceptions to this rule.”
One of those three cases that came after the reprimand involved Tacorey Markith Gilliam, a repeat felon with a long criminal history that includes convictions for compelling prostitution of kids as young as 15, drug distribution, theft from a grave and fraud.
Gilliam had been indicted for trying to use two counterfeit $50 bills at a business in 2015. After he was arrested and released on bond, workers at the business told police he later tried to bribe them for $500 to keep quiet.
A jury found him guilty.
In an unprecedented move – just over a month after his reprimand -- Putman filed a motion to undo the jury’s verdict and let Gilliam plead guilty to the felony forgery charge and accept an 8-year prison term. Putman noted in court records that Gilliam had acknowledged guilt in the tampering case.
Bingham said in undoing the jury’s verdict, Putman violated the law. He said a case cannot be dismissed that way after “there has been a finding of guilt by a jury.”
The case of Zuniga’s ex-husband, Mario Solis, was another of those that occurred after the reprimand.
Zuniga said Solis, an oilfield worker, abused her throughout the 15 years they were together.
In 2014, he was charged with misdemeanor assault in Gregg County after she said he attacked her in the parking lot of the Longview police department during a handoff of their children for visitation. The next month, Zuniga obtained a protective order outlining the years of abuse she had suffered.
“I am truly scared of Mario and what he might do to me every time he is close to me,” she wrote.
Solis was ordered into a pretrial diversion program in late 2014. The same month, their divorce was finalized. He completed the pretrial diversion program and the assault charge was dismissed in June 2015.
In July 2016, Smith County sheriff’s deputies answered a disturbance call at the Solis home. Zuniga’s children were there for weekend visitation.
His new wife told police that a drunken Solis had been yelling and spanking his daughters. Relatives told police that he had grabbed his new wife’s neck and slammed her onto the porch. Solis was arrested for assaulting his new wife.
Zuniga said she received a call that night from her oldest asking her to come get them. Her 9-year-old told her that he had punished her by spanking her with a shoe after she said she wanted to take a nap and not go outside to play with her cousins. Her daughter also said he grabbed her arm, dragged her off the bed and onto the floor, causing her to hit her face hard.
The next morning, Zuniga took her to the doctor for X-rays. Medical records showed the nine-year-old had an injured left hand, “multiple contusions to the right eye and right upper back,” according to the sheriff’s investigation.
In a text message, Solis said he had pulled the girl off the bed and spanked her. He promised to stop drinking and asked that she not press charges.
A grand jury later indicted Solis for injury to a child, a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
In a meeting with Putman, she said they discussed Solis’ history of family violence. She said she told him that she was willing to have her children testify if needed.
She said he told her he would offer Solis 10 years’ probation if her ex pleaded guilty to felony child abuse. She said Putman promised to keep her in the loop, but then she didn’t hear from him for months.
When she went to talk to him, he told her that he had offered a deal that would allow result in the dismissal of the injury to a child charge in exchange for the guilty plea on the misdemeanor assault.
“I was very disappointed,” she said. “It was pretty clear that I was not happy with this decision.”
She said he told her that he had forgotten about their discussion.
“Mr. Putman told me that he thought it was the best way to get an enhanced charge the next time he did it to somebody else no matter who it was,” she said. “I told him this is the next time. This was already a felony and something needed to be done this time.”
In a July 2017 email to Zuniga, Putman wrote, that Solis pleaded guilty and was placed on two years’ probation.
“He did admit his guilt and responsibility for injury to a child,” Putman wrote. “Again, I apologize that this is not the resolution you wanted. I am sorry for the lack of communication on my part.”
Bingham has apologized to Zuniga for Putman’s actions. He also apologized to the wife of the trooper.
“I’m getting tired of apologizing on his behalf,” Bingham said.
Bingham said he is continuing to review the audit, as well as Putman’s continued employment with the DA’s office.
“I’ve given him more chances than most would,” Bingham said.
Just looking at the photos of her daughter, Zuniga said she will never understand Putman’s decision.
“This was a nine-year-old little girl who needed somebody to help keep her safe and unfortunately for us that fell on him,” her mother said.
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