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Deal averts execution, brings family closure

Published Dec. 29, 2006

Before 11-year-old Carlie Brucia of Sarasota was caught on videotape being led to her death, before 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford was abducted and killed in Homosassa, before 13-year-old Sarah Lunde's body was found in a Ruskin pond, there was Sharra Ferger.

She was just 9 when she was repeatedly raped and stabbed 46 times - nine times to the head - beaten, scratched and bitten. Her body was found Oct. 3, 1997, in a field near her Blanton home, clad only in her favorite green T-ball shirt.

It was one of the most infamous crimes in Pasco County history.

Now, after nearly a decade, Sharra's killers have been brought to justice.

Sharra's uncle, Gary Elishi Cochran, 41, pleaded guilty Wednesday to first-degree murder. He avoided death row by accepting a life sentence.

"It's been a long road," State Attorney Bernie McCabe said Thursday. "I guess there's a sense of relief that it's finally come to a conclusion."

The other defendant, Gary Steven Cannon, 26, was convicted by a Pasco jury in September 2005. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Cochran's lawyers initiated the plea negotiation just before Christmas. Each side came together hours before a hastily arranged hearing Wednesday.

Both men were indicted in 2001. Cannon was spared execution because of a quirk of birth: He was 17 when Sharra died, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that juveniles cannot be executed.

The reasons Cochran escaped death are more complex. But the specter of execution fueled his bid to strike a deal. Complications with the state's case led prosecutors to accept a deal.

"If you look at the circumstances of the death of Sharra Ferger ... you have no qualms about seeking the death penalty in that case," McCabe said. "But in each case ... you have to make a decision on (its) own merits."

'Not as good as DNA'

Defense attorney Edward Liebling said Cochran wanted to spare his family - Sharra's family - the pain of a trial. Cochran also decided the gamble was too great.

"If the death penalty was not in the equation, it changes the dynamic dramatically," Liebling said.

Here's what both sides faced:

Before trial, the defense planned to present evidence that Cochran is mentally retarded, which would exempt him from the death penalty.

Unlike the Cannon case, when the state showed jurors DNA linking him to the crime, the only physical link to Cochran was a bite mark on Sharra's shoulder. Authorities say it matched his dental imprint.

But years ago they said it matched another man's: Dale Morris Jr., a neighbor who was arrested 13 days after Sharra's body was found.

It proved to be a false identification. Morris was freed after four months in jail, cleared by DNA evidence. He sued the Pasco Sheriff's Office and died last year at age 52 of heart ailments, after forgiving those who wrongly arrested him.

It's a story the jurors at Cochran's trial would have heard.

"We intended to make the jury aware that there had been a mistake originally, that the wrong person had been indicted, that this is not an exact science, that this is not the same as DNA, this is not as good as DNA," Liebling said. "It's merely the opinion of a dentist."

Prosecutors say they were ready for trial. The bite mark expert who linked the wound to Cochran is the same one who cleared Morris. But several witnesses against Cochran have died, and Morris' false arrest hung over the case.

"A life sentence without parole is a very harsh sentence in and of itself," McCabe said. "I'm satisfied we did the right thing."

Family wanted more

Sharra's parents, who are no longer together, agreed to the deal. Her father, John Lee "Jay" Parsons, said Thursday he was not disappointed.

But he wasn't satisfied, either.

"I wished for a long, horrible, prolonged death for both of them," he said. "My hands are tied. The decision's been made.

"That's the best I can get, so I'll have to take that."

But Sharra's sister, Crystal Ferger, 23, said she wanted the death penalty. She's angry that the legal team made a decision to plea bargain without her, especially after years of canceled subpoenas and postponed trials.

"With how brutally murdered my sister was and for them two to get life sentences, it's all through loopholes," she said. "I'm not satisfied."

Times staff writer Casey Cora and Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

Timeline

A conclusion at last

October 1997: Sharra Ferger, 9, is found raped and fatally stabbed in a field near her east Pasco home. Authorities arrest a neighbor, Dale Morris Jr. He sits in jail four months before being exonerated for lack of evidence.

2001: Deputies indict Gary Cochran, Sharra's uncle, and Gary Steven Cannon, who had lived in the Ferger house at times.

2005: A jury convicts Cannon after experts say they found his DNA on hairs found on the girl's body. Because he was 17 at the time of the killing, Cannon could not be given the death penalty in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. He received a life sentence.

Wednesday: Cochran accepts a plea deal for a life sentence.