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Florida Supreme Court upholds death sentence for Gary Hilton

Florida Supreme Court upholds death sentence for Gary Hilton
Gary Hilton was sentenced to death in Florida for the murder of nurse Cheryl Dunlap. File Photo courtesy of the Florida Department of Corrections

Aug. 26 (UPI) -- The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the death sentence for a man convicted of murdering a nurse whose body was found in Apalachicola National Forest in 2007.

The court denied Gary Hilton's request to overturn his conviction and sentence on grounds he had ineffective counsel during his trial. His lawyers also said the trial court should have taken into consideration the abuse he suffered as a child as well as his history of substance abuse and mental illness.

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The state's high court said it has "consistently rejected the argument that mentally ill inmates can never be executed."

"Because the evidence of aggravation in Hilton's case is overwhelming, he has not established a reasonable probability that, with the additional evidence of mitigation presented at the evidentiary hearing, he would have received a life sentence," the opinion states.

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"Where the additional mitigation is minor or cumulative and the aggravating circumstances substantial, we have held that confidence in the outcome of the penalty phase is not undermined."

Hilton, 74, was sentenced to death in 2011 for the murder of Cheryl Dunlap. She was reported missing in December 2007 after failing to appear for her job at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

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Police found her vehicle abandoned on the side of a road, and a hunter passing through the Apalachicola National Forest nearly two weeks later found her dismembered remains. DNA testing confirmed her identity.

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Hilton was linked to Dunlap's murder after Georgia police arrested him in January 2008 for the death of Meredith Emerson, a hiker in Vogel State Park. He led police to Emerson's body in exchange for prosecutors dropping the death penalty in that case.

A hunter reported seeing Hilton in the forest where Dunlap's body was found and rangers saw him on two separate occasions.

Hilton was also sentenced to life in prison for the October 2007 murders of North Carolina hikers John Bryant and Irene Bryant in the Pisgah National Forest.

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