The wiry, graying drifter sought for several days in the New Year’s Day disappearance of a 24-year-old hiker pleaded guilty Thursday to murdering her in what authorities called a frustrated robbery attempt.
In a startlingly swift resolution to the case, Gary Michael Hilton was immediately sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years. The judge said she signed off on the deal because the 61-year-old likely would have died in prison anyway before the state had a chance to execute him.
Hilton was indicted Thursday morning by a specially called Dawson County grand jury that accused him of bludgeoning Meredith Emerson on Jan. 4, three days after he was seen with her on a trail in the mountains of northern Georgia.
Hilton told investigators he abducted the physically fit woman in a plan to steal cash from her bank accounts, Dawson County District Attorney Lee Darragh said.
“The sole purpose was to acquire (bank) cards and PIN numbers,” Darragh said. “He mentioned at one point that he knew eventually he would take her life.”
Bush extends surveillance law
President Bush signed a 15-day extension for a temporary surveillance law Thursday, signaling a brief reprieve in an ongoing battle with Democrats in Congress over whether to grant immunity to telephone companies from lawsuits alleging invasions of privacy for helping the government conduct warrantless wiretaps.
The delay marked a partial concession to Senate Democrats who favored a delay to continue their deliberations. Bush said Thursday that he will not agree to any further postponement.
Death row inmate wins reprieve
A murderer who would have become the nation’s first executed inmate in months won a reprieve Thursday from the U.S. Supreme Court about an hour before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection.
James Harvey Callahan, set to die at 6 p.m. CST, was granted a stay, Holman prison warden Grantt Culliver told officers on death row. The Supreme Court’s brief order did not detail why it granted the stay.
It would have been the nation’s first execution since September, when the high court agreed to consider whether lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment. The inmate’s attorney had asked the high court to halt the execution after a federal appeals court lifted a stay granted by a Montgomery judge.
Callahan was sentenced for the 1982 murder of Jacksonville State University student Rebecca Suzanne Howell, who was raped, strangled and dumped in a creek.