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Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011 The 12-person jury in the Gary Michael Hilton murder trial went out to begin its deliberations at about 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 15 and came back nearly four hours later finding him guilty on three counts, including first-degree murder, kidnapping and theft of $300. He was not found guilty of grand theft.
The next step of the trial will be the penalty phase, in which the jury decides whether to recommend the death penalty in the case. That will start on Thursday, morning, Feb. 17.
Read the full story in the next issue of The Wakulla News. Check back to this website for updates on the death penalty phase of Gary Michael Hilton’s trial.
Gary Michael Hilton on trial for murder
By WILLIAM SNOWDEN
Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011 The trial of Gary Michael Hilton for the 2007 kidnapping and murder of Crawfordville nurse Cheryl Dunlap got underway in Tallahassee on Friday, Feb. 4 with opening statements from the prosecution and defense, and a number of witnesses.
In her opening, Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman laid out the state’s case to the panel of 12 jurors and two alternates, saying evidence would show Hilton killed Dunlap.
Dunlap’s headless body was found in the Apalachicola National Forest a week after she was last seen at Leon Sinks – the state park just across the Leon-Wakulla county line.
Cappleman indicated that a burnt head and hands were found in a firepit at a campsite where Hilton had stayed – presumably Dunlap’s remains.
But Assistant Public Defender Ines Suber urged jurors to “pay attention” to such evidence – the head and hands were destroyed to such an extent that a medical examiner can’t even determine whether it was a male or female. It’s true a handrolled cigarette butt was found nearby with Hilton’s DNA, but he stayed at the site months before Dunlap’s disappearance, Suber said.
“Pay attention to see if they prove a fact or inference that proves this man killed Ms. Dunlap,” Suber told jurors.
Among other evidence, Cappleman said there are homemade videos that Hilton made in which his statements seem to indicate that he may have killed someone.
With the jury outside the courtroom, Leon Circuit Judge James Hankinson was still undecided about whether to allow the videos in as evidence. Photos and videos had been deleted off a camera memory card, but FDLE crime lab technicians were apparently able to recover some of the digital information. Judge Hankinson warned the state that, if the videos are mentioned in the opening and he ultimately rules they are inadmissible as evidence, there is the risk of a mistrial.
Other evidence linking Hilton to Dunlap’s murder include a sleeping bag with her blood on it that he allegedly dumped at a convenience store in Georgia, as well as some loose black plastic beads in Dunlap’s car that matched some found in Hilton’s backpack.
Never mentioned is that Hilton has confessed to a murder of a hiker in Georgia and is facing a life sentence there. One determining factor for choosing jurors was that, while they may have heard of Dunlap’s murder, they are unaware of Hilton’s Georgia confession and sentence.
Testimony on the first day of the trial established that on Dec. 1, 2007, a Saturday, Dunlap had gone to Leon Sinks, where she was seen by several witnesses reading a book on a boardwalk over Hammock Sink.
She was reported missing after she wasn’t at work on Monday.
Her white Toyota Camry was found abandoned on the side of Crawfordville Highway. Wakulla Sheriff’s Capt. Steve Ganey, who was investigating the missing persons report, noted that he found it suspicious that the car was parked close to the woodline. Additionally, Ganey testified that he and other officers found the puncture wound of the flat tire suspicious – it was in the sidewall of the tire, and the tire tracks did not indicate it had a flat tire as it drove up.
Inside the car, the Wakulla Sheriff’s Office found Dunlap’s purse and drivers license. Missing was her ATM card and $100 from a recently cashed check.
On Monday, Feb. 7
The state continued to present its case – with much of the morning taken up with testimony from Agent Ronald Weyland of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, who was tasked with enhancing the ATM videos of a masked man making withdrawals from Dunlap’s accounts on Dec. 2, Dec. 3, and Dec. 4.
On the first two of those days, a man wearing a mask that appears to be made of some sort of tape approaches the ATM. On the third day, a man wearing some sort of cloth over his face goes to the machine.
Weyland observed that the man in all three videos appears to be wearing a white long-sleeved shirt. In the Dec. 2 photo, it appears the man is wearing a holster with a weapon.
Cherokee County, Ga., sheriff’s deputy William Ballard finished the morning testimony with an encounter he had with Hilton in October 2007 in which he warned the drifter that he could not camp at the wildlife management area.
The encounter between the deputy and Hilton was recorded on the deputy’s dash-cam in his patrol car and showed Hilton to be extremely talkative – complaining about deer hunters and talking about his life.
Hilton said he had gone through paratrooper training in the 1950s and told the deputy he was semi-retired.
After about 30 minutes of conversation, the exchange ends with Hilton telling the deputy: “I love you. Be safe.”
On Tuesday, Feb. 8.
Prosecutor Georgia Cappleman told the court that her case could be completed on Wednesday, or perhaps early Thursday.
Witnesses taking the stand in the morning included associate medical examiner Dr. Anthony Clark, who testified about the autopsy he conducted on Dunlap’s body.
He estimated the body had been in the woods for seven to 10 days, based on the decomposition and insects. The head had been cut off at the neck and the hands amputated.
Dunlap was identified using DNA tests on muscle tissue taken from her thigh since the blood in the body had dried.
It appeared the head and hands had been cut off using a very sharp knife after Dunlap was dead, he said.
Dr. Clark assisted with gathering bone fragments from a burn pit at the Joe Thomas Road campsite, where the state claims Hilton was living at the time.
Asked for the cause of death, Dr. Clark said it was “undetermined homicidal violence.”
“Whatever killed her probably happened to her head?” asked Cappleman.
“Head or neck – yes, ma’am,” the doctor answered.
Defense attorney Suber took aim at the word “violence,” asking how he could determine whether it was a violent death.
“There’s no evidence that an animal undressed her, decapitated and took her hands and left her in the woods,” the medical examiner answered. “Another human did this to her.”
On re-direct, when Cappleman was attempting to ask if it was correct that the medical examiner could not say whether Dunlap died by gunshot, strangulation or beating, Suber interrupted to object several times before the prosecutor could finish the question – prompting Judge Hankinson to tell Suber to sit down and be quiet until the question was asked.
While the jury was out of the courtroom, Suber moved for a mistrial, claiming the jury might be prejudiced against Hilton because of the way the judge treated her. The judge denied the motion.
Other witnesses included a Cumming, Ga., man who called police after he noticed a man dressed in green and purple taking something to a convenience store dumpster. The man, Steven Shaw, later identified Hilton as the man in the outrageous outfit.
A Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent, Mitchell Posey, went to the dumpster and found a knife and sheath and many other items that had been dumped there – including a U.S. Forest Service citation in Hilton’s name.