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Sheriff deflects blame for wrong arrest in murder case

Published Sep. 26, 2005

The fault lies with a prosecutor and two experts, Lee Cannon testifies. The murder of 9-year-old Sharra Ferger remains unsolved.

Sheriff Lee Cannon lays the blame for the quick _ and later proved unfounded _ arrest of Dale Morris Jr. in the 1997 murder of Sharra Ferger on prosecutor Phil Van Allen and two dentists.

It wasn't his fault, Cannon testified.

The sheriff's attorney asked the court Tuesday to dismiss Morris' wrongful arrest suit, contending Cannon has immunity because he was acting first on legal probable cause, then on a grand jury indictment.

In documents released Tuesday, Cannon and his detectives acknowledge that when they arrested Morris two weeks after the murder, the only hard evidence they had was the opinions of two forensic dentists. Both dentists later said they never expected to be the sole basis of a capital arrest.

A detective questioned in the case also said authorities based their 2 a.m. arrest and subsequent four-month incarceration on Morris' inconclusive polygraph test, his home being near the crime scene, and "the fact that his alibi was probably not the strongest alibi."

Morris, 45 at the time of his arrest, was charged with abducting 9-year-old Sharra Ferger from her Blanton home and killing her. The girl disappeared from her home the night of Oct. 2, 1997, and her partly clothed body was found the next day in a nearby field.

She had been sexually assaulted, stabbed more than 30 times, and been bitten on the back of her left hand, her left shoulder and her back during the attack.

Morris was arrested Oct. 16 and held until February, when DNA evidence cleared him. He filed a wrongful arrest lawsuit against the sheriff six months later.

Cannon, in a deposition taken last spring, said that never in his 12 years with the Tampa Police Department or in his three years as a state prosecutor had he based a case on bite marks.

Even when Holiday dentist Kenneth Martin told him in October 1997 he was sure the bite marks on Ferger's body were Morris', Cannon said he resisted.

"I had said, "No, we're not going to make the arrest based on one examination of the bite mark," Cannon said.

Then Van Allen called and told him the dentist's testimony was enough, Cannon said.

"Did you consider him to be urging you to arrest Dale Morris?" Morris' attorney, A.R. "Chip" Mander asked.

"Yes," Cannon said.

The sheriff said he thought he was expected to authorize the arrest.

"Pressured, no," he said. "I don't respond well to people pressuring me. Highly suggesting to me, maybe, in a way demeaning, that I didn't understand, you know, that: "You don't understand, sheriff, you've got probable cause. What is your problem?' That kind of pressure, yes."

Cannon said Martin told him he was "positive" the bite was Morris'. Martin said another dentist, Richard Souviron, could offer a second opinion. Martin flew to Wyoming, on the county payroll, with a state agent to meet with Souviron. Cannon said Souviron, in a midnight phone call, backed Martin completely.

"He said, "My determination is that Dr. Martin did a wonderful job. It's one of the best prepared cases I have ever seen,' " Cannon testified. "Absolutely, this is the man."

Lead detective Allen Proctor testified deputies didn't have much else to go on. They were waiting for the results of the DNA testing on hairs found in Ferger's left hand but didn't want to wait.

"We were ready to make an arrest," he said. "A lot of us weren't sleeping at night anyway because of this, and we wanted some closure."

Martin, in his report to the sheriff, fingered Morris as the biter "within all degree of dental/medical certainty." But the dentist said in his deposition he would never expect a dentist's opinion to be cause for an arrest.

"I don't make those calls. I just render an opinion," he said. "A bite mark is never 100 percent."

Souviron, quoted by a state investigator and Martin as saying Morris' identification from the bite marks was a "no-brainer," later backed down and said they were "more likely than not" his imprints, Cannon said.

Souviron told the Times in December that bite marks aren't enough to make an arrest. "Whether Dale Morris is innocent or guilty, I have no idea," he said in a telephone interview.

Cannon said he remains convinced he did nothing wrong by making the arrest and said he has even tried to convince Tampa Tribune editorial writer Tom Jackson not to write an editorial about the case by explaining the difficult position he was in.

"I think we took every step that we could. But certainly, I have compassion for Mr. Morris," Cannon said. "If the experts made a mistake, then I don't have any way of controlling what they tell me."

Ferger's murder remains unsolved.