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Official: Hilton may plead guilty to killing hiker

Hearing set for today in Dawson County in death of 24-year-old Buford hiker

POSTED: February 11, 2008 5:02 a.m.
Suspected serial killer Gary Michael Hilton could plead guilty to the murder of abducted hiker Meredith Emerson in a hearing scheduled for this afternoon, officials said.

Law enforcement officials confirmed late Wednesday that a guilty plea was expected.

"That’s our understanding," said Sgt. Tony Wooten, a spokesman for the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office.

District Attorney Lee Darragh did not return calls seeking comment late Wednesday. Darragh has previously declined to comment on the case outside of court. Hilton’s attorney, public defender Brad Morris, declined to comment.

A guilty plea to murder less than a month after charges were filed would be highly unusual. Most murder cases routinely take a year or more to resolve.

Hilton, 61, faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted of murder. Under current pardons and paroles guidelines, he would be eligible for parole in 30 years.

Hilton is charged in the Jan. 4 bludgeoning death of Emerson, a 24-year-old Buford woman who authorities say was abducted Jan. 1 from the Byron Herbert Reece Memorial Trailhead in Union County.

Hilton, a drifter who largely lived out of his van and frequented national forests, led authorities to Emerson’s decapitated body in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area on Jan. 7.

Earlier, Union County District Attorney Stan Gunter and U.S. Attorney David Nahmias agreed not to seek the death penalty against Hilton if he would disclose the location of Emerson’s body.

Darragh, the prosecutor for the county where the murder allegedly was committed, was not involved in those negotiations. He has declined to discuss the possibility of seeking the death penalty in the case. Legal observers believe, however, that Darragh is bound by the agreement.

Hilton has been charged but not indicted.

A Dawson County grand jury could convene sometime prior to this afternoon’s hearing to hear evidence in the case and return an indictment.

Judge Bonnie Chessher Oliver would preside over any hearing for Hilton in Dawson County Superior Court.

University of Georgia law professor Ron Carlson called the prospect of a guilty plea, if it takes place, "a remarkable development."

"That is moving along at lightning speed," Carlson said.

Carlson suggested that a willingness to forego the death penalty might contribute to quickly closing out a case that could be difficult on surviving family members the longer it dragged on.

"Instead of a tortured, lengthy litigation process that is painful to family and would remind them of terrible memories, it looks like this case could be going in a different direction," Carlson said.

He compared Hilton’s case to another notorious murder case in Georgia that is now nearly 3 years old with no end in sight.

"Just compare this case and the dispatch with which this could be handled versus the (Brian) Nichols case," Carlson said.

Nichols is accused of shooting a judge, court reporter and two others in March 2005. His death penalty case has been bogged down in a morass of funding issues, and the embattled presiding judge in the case stepped down on Wednesday.

Carlson said he believes Darragh would be bound by the agreement made by other prosecutors not to seek the death penalty against Hilton.

"Both the Union County prosecutor and the Dawson County prosecutor are arms of the state of Georgia," Carlson said. "If one prosecutor makes a binding agreement, is the other prosecutor obligated to honor it? Because both are arms of the state of Georgia, I believe the answer is yes."

Carlson noted that prosecutors in Florida and North Carolina, where Hilton remains a strong suspect in a pair of slayings, are not bound by the agreement and would be free to seek the death penalty against Hilton if they charge him with murder.

"For those who are concerned that too much was given up to resolve this case, there are still the other cases," Carlson said.


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