TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (GNS) -- Leon Circuit Judge James Hankinson took six minutes Thursday to sentence serial killer Gary Michael Hilton to death for the 2007 murder of Crawfordville nurse Cheryl Dunlap.
"May God have mercy on your soul," the judge told a bearded, emotionless Hilton, who was then fingerprinted and whisked from the courtroom.
Hankinson issued his order before a packed gallery of spectators, including fellow judges and the sheriffs of both Leon and Wakulla counties. Dunlap's aunt and cousin clutched hands. When the death sentence was announced, cousin Gloria Tucker did a small fist pump and whispered, "Yes!"
In February, a unanimous Leon County jury convicted Hilton and recommended that he be put to death.
"I knew (Hankinson) was going to do the right thing," a smiling Tucker said after the hearing. "I am just so happy that Hilton will never be able to hurt anyone ever again."
Hankinson also sentenced Hilton to life in prison for kidnapping and an additional five years for theft in connection with Dunlap's Dec. 1, 2007, abduction from Leon Sinks Geological Area. Evidence presented by prosecutors showed that the 46-year-old Sunday school teacher was kept captive by Hilton in the nearby Apalachicola National Forest for up to three days before he killed her. He then cut off her head and hands and incinerated them in a campsite burn pit in an effort to cover up his crimes.
"It makes me feel good this guy is going to suffer on death row," said Wakulla County Sheriff David Harvey, whose community was rocked by Dunlap's killing.
Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell said that in his 50 years in law enforcement, no one more deserved the death penalty than Hilton.
"He comes shuffling into court like an old man, but he's not," Campbell said. "He's some kind of monster."
State Attorney Willie Meggs defended his decision to prosecute Hilton and seek the death penalty even though the killer had already been given a life sentence in Georgia for the murder of hiker Meredith Emerson less than a month after he killed Dunlap. Hilton also is a suspect in at least four other slayings, including an elderly North Carolina couple in October 2007.
"I don't think murders should be cheaper by the dozen," Meggs said. "Our job is to seek justice and I think there should be a higher consequence for someone who kills someone."
Dunlap's aunt Emma Blount said Hilton's sentence came as a relief, but her only real comfort is in knowing that her niece, a deeply religious woman, is in heaven.
"People who didn't know Cheryl don't know what we have lost and what was taken from us," she said. "I know that when Mr. Hilton dies, he will go to hell."
Hilton has 30 days to file an appeal. Assistant Public Defender Ines Suber said Thursday he will do so.
The average length of stay for an inmate on Florida's Death Row is about 12-and-a-half years. Considering Hilton's age, it is possible that the 64-year-old will die before he is executed. The oldest person ever to be put to death by the state was 72. Hilton would be almost 77 years old if he spends the average time at one of two Raiford prisons.
That is of little concern for Tucker.
"He'll miss his dog and that will be the big punishment for him," she said. "It's just a good feeling that it is over."
(The Tallahassee Democrat)