Florida Penalty phase begins for killer Man is already serving life for first murder

By Bill Kaczor

Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Jurors who convicted a drifter of a second decapitation murder listened to him talk matter-of-factly about how he abducted, killed and beheaded his first victim in a videotaped police interview Thursday on the first day of the penalty phase of his trial.

Gary Michael Hilton, 64, could receive a death sentence or life in prison without parole for the December 2007 slaying of 46-year-old nurse and Sunday school teacher Cheryl Dunlap of nearby Crawfordville.

He's already received a life sentence in exchange for pleading guilty to murdering 24-year-old hiker Meredith Emerson in Georgia about a month after Dunlap disappeared.

The headless bodies of both victims were found in forests where Hilton camped in northern Georgia and the Florida Panhandle. Hilton also is a suspect in at least three other killings in Florida and North Carolina.

The jurors, who returned a guilty verdict Tuesday, were shown the interview to support the state's argument that Hilton should get a death sentence because he'd committed a previous murder. The penalty phase was to continue Friday and perhaps into next week.

State Attorney Willie Meggs also told the panel that Hilton killed Dunlap for money and to avoid getting caught. He also did it in a heinous and premeditated manner while committing a kidnapping, all additional aggravating circumstances, Meggs said.

Circuit Judge James Hankinson rejected objections to portions of the video that defense lawyers said were irrelevant, pertained to hypothetical situations or implied Hilton committed uncharged crimes through his repeated use of the words "they" or "them" instead of a single victim.

Wearing a red jail jumpsuit in a small, white-walled room, Hilton told two Georgia investigators on the video that he got no satisfaction, sexual or otherwise, from killing Emerson.

"It was distasteful," he said. "It was dreadful. Trust me, it was."

He said he was able to put aside his dread by imagining it wasn't real, just as soldiers might when confronted with the carnage of war.

Charles Josh Golden, a neurophysiologist, testified for the defense that Hilton acted irrationally and could not obey the law because of a brain injury he suffered as a child, an emotional disorder, his use of Ritalin and other drugs, and sleep deprivation.

Under cross-examination, though, Golden said Hilton scored in the top 10 percent of the population with an IQ of 120.

Assistant Public Defender Robert Friedman told the jury that Hilton endured an abusive childhood -- he went into foster care after his parents abandoned him -- in arguing against a death sentence.

Hilton earned an associate's degree from Miami-Dade College, was discharged from the Army because of psychiatric problems and lived in Atlanta before taking to the woods after losing a telemarketing job, Friedman said.

Hankinson will not be bound by the jury's recommendation but must give it great weight.

Emerson disappeared on New Year's Day 2008 while hiking near Cumming, Ga., and was killed after Hilton held her captive for more than three days.

Hilton has not testified at his Florida trial, and many details of Dunlap's abduction and death remain a mystery. Prosecutors introduced a mass of circumstantial evidence including DNA and charred skull and hand bones found in a fire pit at a campsite linked to Hilton. Dunlap's hands as well as her head had been chopped off.

Hilton said on the video that 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."

He said Emerson "fought like hell" when he abducted her on a hiking trail, but she eventually submitted and he chained her inside his van. Emerson, though, thwarted his efforts to get money from her bank account by giving him bogus ATM numbers, Hilton said on the video.

Hilton also claimed if had he known police were looking for him he wouldn't have killed Emerson. He said he found out just hours after killing her when he saw a newspaper article. Hilton said if a former employer who identified him to police had told him that when he called asking for his job back he wouldn't have killed Emerson.

"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."

Published: Mon, Feb 21, 2011