Man draws life term in murder of girl

Published Sept. 21, 2005|Updated Oct. 24, 2005

After his 2001 indictment in the rape and murder of Sharra Ferger, Gary Steven Cannon returned to the county jail in a fury. From inside his cell he raged at the inmate and former friend who helped build the case against him.

"You back-stabber, how could you do this?" the defendant screamed at him four years ago, Randy Kernan testified before jurors in Cannon's trial last week.

"Did he ever call you a liar?" asked prosecutor Jim Hellickson.

"No, he never . . . heh, no he never did call me a liar," Kernan said. "I never even thought of that."

Eight years after one of Pasco County's most infamous crimes, it took one hour and 36 minutes for a jury to convict Cannon of first-degree murder.

Immediately afterward, he was sentenced to life in prison.

Cannon's seven-day trial ended Tuesday afternoon with the defendant hunched over, eyes clenched, family and friends quietly sobbing behind him, as eight men and four women confirmed their unanimous decision.

After the verdict, a defiant Cannon lashed out at prosecutors, at detectives, at the former inmates who testified against him. The state was withholding evidence, he said, and the jailhouse witnesses given sweetheart deals, deals the jury never heard of.

"Through the whole course of this, ain't nothing been done right," Cannon said, stifling tears. "You got people lying left and right."

It was Cannon's first words on his own behalf. He did not testify at his own trial, after which he did not ask for mercy, and showed no remorse.

Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper told him there was no evidence of such deals. The judge would not let Cannon wallow in pity, nor did she show any when handing down the maximum sentence.

Tepper said she found Kernan's testimony Thursday powerful. Not only did Cannon confess that he and co-defendant Gary Elishi Cochran raped and killed Sharra in the predawn of Oct. 3, 1997, Kernan said, but Cannon said he enjoyed it, sharing explicit details of her brutal sexual assault.

"This court also found it very telling when the state asked Mr. Kernan (why you) never called him a liar," the judge said. "That was the one thing you never called him, curiously.

"In light of the evidence presented in this trial, and in light of how this trial was conducted, I find it a little bit difficult to comprehend how you, who have been convicted of this most heinous crime of (inflicting) 46 stab wounds to a 9-year-old child who was viciously gang-raped . . . can find the conduct of any attorney in this trial to be ghastly.

"I also find it belatedly disturbing that you have a dozen friends and family standing for you now, but I am at a loss to understand what occurred when you were growing up and being tossed from pillar to post. I wonder where everyone was the first 17 years of your life?

"I know where you will be for the rest of your life, serving a penalty that you have earned."

Five jurors stayed for the sentencing. They left without commenting.

At the state's request, Cannon, 25, will start his life sentence in nine years _ after his 15 years for robbing and breaking the neck of a 70-year-old man.

Sharra was lured from her home by someone she knew, according to the prosecution, then beaten, bitten, molested, raped and stabbed to death.

The state's case: eyewitness testimony that Cannon disappeared the night of Oct. 2, reappearing the next day with a bloody shirt, missing a knife he borrowed; jailhouse witnesses who said Cannon confessed; and forensic experts who said they found Cannon's DNA on hairs found on the victim's body.

Cannon said he was at home watching a Buccaneers-Packers game the night of Oct. 2 _ but the 1997 NFL schedule shows the game was Oct. 5.

The defense did not present a case. Instead, attorneys Bjorn Brunvand and Danny Hernandez went after the prosecution's witnesses and evidence.

Cannon could have been watching an old game tape. The crime scene and DNA evidence was contaminated. Cannon briefly stayed at the Ferger household, so his hairs could have ended up on the sofa and blanket Sharra used. The jailhouse witnesses were unreliable, their motives questionable.

They repeatedly invoked a name forever linked to the Ferger case: Dale Morris Jr. Thirteen days after her body was found, Morris was falsely arrested, then exonerated and freed four months later.

"I suggest to you, ladies and gentlemen, that just as Mr. Morris has been charged and it was a false charge," Hernandez told jurors in his closing argument, "the same applies to Mr. Cannon."

Both attorneys left the courthouse without comment, as did Cannon's family.

At one time both Cannon and Cochran faced the death penalty. But in March the U.S. Supreme Court ruled juveniles cannot be executed. Cannon was 17 when Sharra died. It is the state's one regret about Tuesday's outcome, said prosecutor Bruce Bartlett.

"He got every bit of what he deserved," Bartlett said. "Quite frankly, if he had not been a juvenile we would have pursued the death penalty.

"It's unfortunate we didn't have that option."

The state's work is not yet done, State Attorney Bernie McCabe said.

"It's been a long process to bring justice to that particular case," he said. "I'm gratified that it finally has occurred. But it's only halfway done."

That's because Cochran, Sharra's uncle, could go to trial in December. He still faces death if convicted.

Sharra's father, Jay Parsons, has this recurring nightmare: acquittals for both.

"Wow, well, I always had that one hope that yeah, it would come out this way," he said. "But they've still got one to go."

Sharra's mother, Karen Ferger Patti, now lives in Buffalo, N.Y., where she is undergoing psychiatric treatment. Last week she briefly flew to Florida to testify. The conviction didn't lessen her pain.

"They're still here," she said, "and my daughter can't come back."

Morris died in March. It was in his memory that his widow, Sandi Christy, sat through the trial.

She'll be back for Cochran's trial, too. "One down," she said, "one to go."