Ga. killer sentenced to death in beheading murder

A jury unanimously recommended the death penalty Monday for a drifter found guilty in the 2007 slaying of a nurse whose beheaded body was found in a national forest.

Circuit Judge James C. Hankinson will impose the sentence at a date yet to be scheduled. In Florida, a judge has the discretion in death cases but is supposed to give "great weight" to the jury's recommendation. Judges normally follow a jury's recommendation in capital cases.

The jury reached its decision after about an hour of deliberations in the case of Gary Michael Hilton, who was found guilty last week in the killing of 46-year-old Cheryl Dunlap of Crawfordville.

Hilton, 64, had already been sentenced to life in prison in Georgia for pleading guilty to killing 24-year-old hiker Meredith Emerson of Athens, Ga., about a month after Dunlap disappeared.

The headless bodies of both victims were found in forests where Hilton had camped in northern Georgia and the Florida Panhandle.

"If there was ever a case for it, this was it," State Attorney Willie Meggs said of the rare unanimous decision in a death case.

Dunlap's close friend, Gloria Tucker of Crawfordville, expressed satisfaction with the jury's decision. But she said even Hilton's execution wouldn't bring total justice in the case of her friend, whom she called Sherri.

"I don't think any family members got justice," Tucker said. "He's no equal for Sherri. She grew up with a bad home life and grew up to be a lovely person."

Hilton's defense attorneys sought to persuade the jury that his unhappy childhood, a lifetime of emotional abuse and drug abuse contributed to a "perfect storm" that led to the killings.

"Mr. Hilton was never able to connect with people, only his dogs," public defender Robert Friedman said in his closing argument Monday. "No one gave him any sense of love at any time in his life."

But the jury didn't buy the defense arguments.

Hilton, who wore a dark blue suit, light blue shirt and silver tie, sat nervously for much the day Monday, rocking back and forth in his chair, bouncing his legs and chewing on his tongue.

In a police interview played for jurors during the three-week trial, Hilton said he regretted trying to make money by killing rather than robbing banks, but said that choice was partly because of "rage against society, sociopathic rage against society."

"Once you've taken someone you're either going to kill them or you're going to get caught," Hilton told the investigators. "But if you're already caught there's no use in killing them."

Hilton is also a suspect in at least three other killings, two in North Carolina and one in Florida.