A 16-year vigil for justice ended Friday for Dorothy "Dolly" Hearn's family, friends and classmates, who never believed she killed herself, as authorities once concluded.
"We've lived knowing that Dolly was the victim of a pointless, cowardly act of murder and believing that every path for justice was seemingly exhausted," said Ms. Hearn's brother, Gil, thanking both Georgia and Alabama officials who have worked on the cases. "We have always known the truth. Today, we rejoice that this truth has been publicly revealed and that Dolly's name is now officially cleared."
Ms. Hearn's killer - dentist Barton Corbin - pleaded guilty Friday to shooting her in the head and staging the crime as a suicide 16 years ago, when they dated while Ms. Hearn was a dental student in Augusta.
Dr. Corbin also pleaded guilty to the 2004 slaying of his wife, Jennifer Corbin, in Gwinnett County by identical means.
Augusta District Attorney Danny Craig, who was to try Dr. Corbin in Ms. Hearn's death after his Gwinnett County murder trial in Mrs. Corbin's slaying, said the plea agreement will avoid what would have been a lengthy, complicated trial.
"It would have extended three or four weeks," Mr. Craig said, adding that it also could have become a death penalty trial, although no filings of such intentions would have been made until the Gwinnett County case was completed.
Although her killer has been brought to justice, it does little to ease the Hearn family's loss.
"The pain of her loss is awakened each time we tell our children and grandchildren that Aunt Dolly was more than just a photo," said her parents, Carlton and Barbara Hearn, of Washington, Ga., in a statement provided to The Associated Press. "This is the nightmare that we will never escape."
Ms. Hearn's classmates and teachers also rejoiced Friday.
"I'm just elated this is over, but the elation comes for her family," said Fred Rueggeberg, a Medical College of Georgia School of Dentistry professor who taught Ms. Hearn until her 1990 death.
Dr. Rueggeberg, who administers a scholarship established in Ms. Hearn's memory by her parents, said the plea vindicates those who suspected a murder from the start.
"Suicide? It wasn't Dolly - not at all," he said.
Felix Maher, a Savannah dentist and part-time volunteer faculty member at MCG, said virtually no one in the tight-knit dental school class he shared with Ms. Hearn believed her death was a suicide.
"Our class was very close-knit," he said. "We worked in close quarters, studied together, took practicals together. When you're with somebody 40 or 50 hours a week, you get close. For her, suicide would never be an option."
Dr. Corbin's arrest for his wife's slaying 14 years after Ms. Hearn's death, he said, confirmed her classmates' suspicions.
"When he was implicated in his wife's suspicious death the same way Dolly's death was suspicious, it kind of removed any doubts," he said.
The scholarship in Ms. Hearn's name is a unique honor at the dental school, Dr. Rueggeberg said.
"When Dolly passed away, her parents wanted to start a memorial fund to remember certain aspects of her. We came up with three particular qualities: professionalism, empathy and perseverance."
The qualities created the acronym PEP. "It describes Dolly to a T," he said.
The recipient is chosen by dental students.
Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
DOLLY HEARN FAMILY WEB SITE