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Hill pleads not guilty to rape & murder charges in McDaniel case

By Steve Short

Dressed in a khaki colored prison uniform, with short cropped hair and black, horn-rimmed glasses, Finis “Pete” Hill slumped in his chair in a Trenton courtroom Monday afternoon, Nov. 4 and turned his head to avoid being photographed.

He was alone in the courtroom, except for a journalist with a camera and three armed security guards who waited and paced about.

Gradually a handful of FBI and local law enforcement officers filtered into the courtroom along with a group of attorneys. Hill’s daughter sat alone on the front row of the courtroom. She spoke briefly with Hill from across the room. She later said she’d driven from Georgia for the hearing.  

Hill was in Circuit Court for an arraignment hearing conducted by Judge Clayburn Peeples. FBI officers and Milan police have named Hill as a prime suspect in the case of the disappearance of Cayce McDaniel of Milan. The 14-year old girl went missing from her Milan home on Aug. 17, 1996. The disappearance has remained unsolved. Hill is awaiting trial on other federal charges and is housed at the federal prison in Mason, Tenn., prosecutors said.

Monday afternoon’s arraignment procedures were delayed for over an hour because of miscommunication with a court reporter stenographer. Once started, the arraignment and dialogue between Peeples and Hill lasted less than five minutes. Hill, 67, stood handcuffed in front of the bench with attorney Jamie Berkley of the Public Defender’s office.

“Are you Finis Erwin Hill, also known as Pete Hill,” Peeples asked.

Hill answered that his middle name was spelled “Ewin.”

“Mr. Hill, in Case Number 20237 the Gibson County Grand Jury has indicted you for crimes of murder in the first degree, murder in perpetration of a felony, aggravated rape with a weapon, and aggravated rape with injury,” said Peeples. “I’m entering a plea of not guilty on your behalf, and I presume you do not have a lawyer.”

“Well, it’s kind of confusing,” said Hill. “Matt Maddox (Huntingdon attorney) has been representing me on a federal case. He’s also been talking to the…”

“I spoke with Mr. Maddox this morning,” Peeples interrupted. “He indicated that he did represent you in the federal matter, I told him if you were unable to hire an attorney I would have to first appoint the Public Defender’s office to represent you. I have spoken with Ms. Berkley  about your case. She is not aware of any conflict that her office has, but should one develop, I’ll obviously have to appoint someone else.”

“The FBI has already spoken with Mr. Maddox about this case for over a year now,” said Hill.

“Be that as it may, this is obviously a case that would take several months and many, many hours of work by an attorney,” said Peeples. “If the Public Defender can do that, it won’t cost the state any additional dollars for that representation. If I have to appoint someone they’ll have to be paid for all of their time. I can’t do that unless they have a conflict.”

“I’m going to call this back up on Jan. 23 at 1 pm.,” added Peeples. “Ms. Berkley once you have ascertained your office is involved, please let me and the state know. Court’s adjourned.”

Hill was escorted out of the courtroom by guards.   

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