Fla. judge orders death for Gary Michael Hilton

A judge sentenced former Atlantan Gary Michael Hilton to death Thursday for the 2007 decapitation of a north Florida nurse.

A jury had already recommended Hilton be sentenced to death after finding him guilty in the slaying of Cheryl Hodges Dunlap, so Thursday's ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge James C. Hankinson was not a surprise.

Hilton was serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to murdering  Georgia hiker Meredith Emerson.

"I think he deserves [death] and a heck of a lot more," Julia Karrenbauer, Emerson's former roommate, told the AJC recently. Emerson, 24 at the time, disappeared on New Year's Day 2008 while hiking along Blood Mountain in Union County. Hilton was apprehended six days later and within weeks was sentenced to life in prison.

A plea deal was offered in exchange for Hilton leading officials to Emerson's body, which he had hidden in Dawson Forest north of Cumming. Georgia authorities knew there was significant evidence in Florida linking Hilton to Dunlap's slaying, information shared with Emerson's parents when presented with the plea agreement. Dunlap's body, also dumped in a remote forest, was found a few weeks before Emerson disappeared.

"I think we all felt pretty confident [Hilton's death sentence] was going to be the happen," said Emerson's former boss, Chris Hendley, after the Florida jury recommended death.

Hilton's attorney told the Associated Press he plans to appeal. The 64-year-old remains a suspect in at least three other deaths and very likely will be charged in connection with the slayings of John and Irene Bryant, an elderly North Carolina couple who disappeared in October 2007 while hiking in the Pisgah National Forest.

--The Associated Press contributed to this report.