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DA had no knowledge of deal in Hilton case

Darragh said promise not to seek death penalty came before his involvement

POSTED: January 21, 2008 5:02 a.m.
Dawson County District Attorney Lee Darragh was left out of the loop when other prosecutors struck a deal with Gary Michael Hilton promising not to seek the death penalty against him in order to locate the body of slain hiker Meredith Emerson.

Darragh told reporters Wednesday after an initial court appearance for Hilton that he first learned Monday night of the discovery of Emerson’s body in Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area and the possibility she had been killed there, some 50 miles from where she was abducted in Union County.

"Neither I nor any member of my staff was made aware of, involved in, nor invited to be a part of any discussion between the United States attorney, District Attorney Stan Gunter of the Enotah Judicial Circuit nor any attorney for the defendant concerning the disposition of this case in Dawson County or the disposition of any case at any time," Darragh said.

Gunter told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he and U.S. Attorney David Nahmias, who was considering prosecuting the case federally, agreed to bargain with Hilton and promise not to seek the death penalty against him if he told them the location of Emerson’s body.

Asked Wednesday whether he would honor that agreement, Darragh said he would "not discuss the issue at the present time."

Eyewitnesses reported seeing law enforcement officials searching the woods in Dawson County on Sunday. Hilton took officials to the area where Emerson’s body was found Monday night, and Darragh was notified shortly afterward.

Gunter has not returned repeated phone calls seeking comment.

Patrick Crosby, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, has previously declined to comment on any prosecution deal.

On Wednesday, Dawson County Chief Magistrate Judge Johnny Holtzclaw denied bond in a routine initial appearance hearing for Hilton, 61, who is accused of kidnapping, bludgeoning to death and beheading Emerson, 24.

Clad in an orange jumpsuit during the hearing, Hilton spoke only to his attorney, Northeastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender Brad Morris, who answered the judge’s questions for him.

Morris told the judge his client had completed two years of college.

Hilton understood the charges against him and did not need the warrant read to him, Morris told the judge.

After the hearing, Hilton was quickly escorted to a waiting sheriff’s car by deputies, ignoring questions shouted by television news reporters.

His attorney was asked later whether an insanity defense might be pursued in the case.

"Everybody I’ve talked to seemed to indicate that might be the case," Morris said, adding his office had only had the case for a brief time. "We just got appointed late last afternoon, so this is all pretty new to us."

Morris said he did not know if the agreement between prosecutors and Hilton had been put in writing. Asked if he felt Darragh was obligated to honor the agreement, Morris said he didn’t know enough about it yet to say.

"If it doesn’t work out, certainly there might be some legal issues," Morris said.

Regardless of whether the death penalty is sought, officials with the state-funded public defender’s office that handles capital cases is keeping close tabs on Hilton’s case.

"They have some involvement in it," Morris said, referring to the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender. "It’s not necessarily their case now, but as a practical matter, I think they’re certainly involved in preparations."

Mack Crawford, the director of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, was present at Hilton’s court appearance Wednesday. The council oversees all the state’s public defender offices and the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender.

Emerson’s body was found nearly 50 miles from where she vanished during a New Year’s Day hike.

Emerson disappeared near Blood Mountain in Union County, where Hilton is charged with kidnapping with intent of bodily injury. He was denied bond on that charge Monday.

An autopsy report says Emerson was beaten to death three days after her disappearance, then decapitated.

Hilton was the last person seen with Emerson on the hiking trail and had tried to use her credit card, according to his arrest warrant.

Three bloody fleece tops and a bloodstained piece of a car’s seat belt were found in a trash bin beside a convenience store where Hilton had used a pay phone, his arrest warrant stated. Hilton had tried to vacuum and wash portions of his 2001 Chevrolet Astro van, which was found without the rear seat belt, according to the document.

Authorities still are not releasing information on how Emerson met Hilton and what happened between the time she disappeared and when she was killed. Those details will come out in court proceedings, authorities said.

Darragh said after the hearing he expected to present the case for indictment in the March term of the Dawson County grand jury.

Morris said he did not know yet whether his client would ask for a preliminary hearing.



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