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Plea deal key to quick resolution in Hilton case

POSTED: February 12, 2008 5:03 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Gary Michael Hilton listens to judge Bonnie Oliver in the Dawson County courtroom Thursday afternoon after pleading guilty to the murder of Meredith Emerson.

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In a judicial system where murder cases routinely can take years to resolve, the speed with which Gary Michael Hilton’s case was closed out left court observers and law enforcement officials in awe.

"Wow," said Forsyth County Sheriff Ted Paxton, when told Thursday that a guilty plea was imminent. "That’s almost unprecedented."

"That’s lightning-fast," said University of Georgia School of Law Professor Ron Carlson.

Hilton, a homeless drifter who lived out of his van and frequented state and national parks, plead guilty to murder 24 days after he was charged in the abduction and bludgeoning death of hiker Meredith Emerson. Many murder cases in Georgia can take 24 months or more to resolve.

Key to the quick plea was the negotiations with Hilton that started while Emerson was still missing. Hilton agreed to lead authorities to her body and enter a guilty plea to one count of murder if prosecutors promised not to seek the death penalty, Union County District Attorney Stan Gunter said Thursday.

When District Attorney Lee Darragh became the lead prosecutor, the deal — which Darragh did not make — still loomed large. A flurry of meetings and consultations with law enforcement, Emerson’s family and prosecution experts followed before Darragh extended the formal offer.

Hilton, acting chiefly through public defender Robert McNeill, who first brokered the deal with Gunter, accepted.

When it was determined earlier this week that Hilton could not plead to an unindicted charge in a murder case, a special session of the Dawson County grand jury was quickly convened Thursday morning, returning an indictment on a single count of murder, per the terms of the agreement.

What followed was the first time, in what may be decades, that a North Georgia murder case was resolved in a month. Neither Paxton, Darragh nor Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent John Cagle, each with more than 25 years of law enforcement experience, have ever seen or heard of a murder case being closed out in court so quickly.

"You certainly expect somebody to go to trial and try to beat it," said Paxton, whose investigators recovered key evidence in the case that Hilton discarded outside a Forsyth County convenience store. "On the other hand, the evidence is overwhelming. It’s refreshing to know he’s willing to admit it and that there’s no reason to fight this thing. It would be refreshing if every case in the criminal justice system could be handled this quickly."

Veteran criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor Dan Summer, who was not involved in the case, said the expeditious resolution was unusual, though not unheard of.

"Relative to all other cases, this is extraordinarily swift, but that doesn’t mean a lot of thought hasn’t gone into it on both sides," Summer said.

Hilton, who answered Judge Bonnie Chessher Oliver’s questions in a firm, clear voice, appeared unwavering in his desire to plead guilty Thursday.

Darragh later credited the work of law enforcement agencies, from the GBI to Union, Dawson and Forsyth County sheriff’s departments, with putting together a solid case in a short period of time.

"No prosecutor is able to act with such speed without the great cooperation of the law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation," Darragh said.

Said Cagle, "the prosecutors were in active discussion with the public defender’s office and I believe the hard work of everyone involved brought about this conclusion."

During Thursday’s hearing, Darragh noted that Emerson’s family was "pleased with the speed with which this case has moved. Today is Jan. 31. Their beloved daughter went missing only 30 days ago. Here we are before the court closing this matter."

Peggy Bailey, a spokeswoman for the family, said afterward, "Today is the last day of a very long month. But January on its last day is safer than January on its first day."



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