DNA testing casts doubt on convictions in 1997 Pasco child murder, defense attorneys say

There was DNA present in samples taken from 9-year-old Sharra Ferger’s body that doesn’t belong to her — or the men who were held responsible in her death, new testing shows.
Pinellas-Pasco Assistant Public Defender Stacey Schroeder listens at a court hearing Tuesday while her colleague Maria DeLiberato discusses new DNA evidence in the 1997 rape and murder of 9-year-old Sharra Ferger.
Pinellas-Pasco Assistant Public Defender Stacey Schroeder listens at a court hearing Tuesday while her colleague Maria DeLiberato discusses new DNA evidence in the 1997 rape and murder of 9-year-old Sharra Ferger. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Aug. 3, 2021|Updated Aug. 3, 2021

DADE CITY — The convictions of two men in one of the most heinous crimes in Pasco County history could be in trouble after the testing of DNA evidence from more than two decades ago.

Defense attorneys for Gary Steven Cannon, who is serving a life sentence for raping and killing 9-year-old Sharra Ferger in 1997, said at a court hearing Tuesday that a never-before-performed DNA analysis casts enough doubt on Cannon’s role in the crime that he deserves a new trial.

There was DNA present in samples taken from Sharra’s body that didn’t belong to her, the attorneys said, but it came from an unknown party, not Cannon or his co-defendant Gary Elishi Cochran.

“This evidence significantly undermines the state’s theory at trial,” Pinellas-Pasco Assistant Public Defender Maria DeLiberato said Monday in an interview. “It corroborates Mr. Cannon’s long-standing claim of innocence.”

An attorney for Cochran said Monday that he also plans to ask a judge to vacate his client’s conviction. Cochran, 55, is also serving a life sentence.

Cochran’s DNA was at the center of the latest analysis, which excluded him as a contributor of DNA in oral, vaginal and anal swabs collected from Sharra’s body. An earlier analysis concluded the same result for Cannon, 40. At the time, the samples were tested for the presence of sperm but none was found, so no further tests were done, according to court documents. Since then, advances in technology have made it possible to test the samples for DNA.

Sharra Ferger
Sharra Ferger [ Times archives ]

“In this case you have a child, and in those intimate places … you have DNA that is foreign to the victim and to Cochran and Cannon,” said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida and the attorney representing Cochran. “That turns the state’s theory of this case on its head.”

The DNA evidence came up amid preparation to resentence Cannon, whose mandatory life sentence is up in the air because he was a juvenile at the time of the crime. At the hearing Tuesday, Assistant State Attorney Glenn Martin argued that the new sentencing hearing, which is scheduled for mid-September, must happen first before Cannon can ask a judge to vacate his conviction.

“We must follow the proper procedure,” Martin said.

Whether that’s the case will be decided at a hearing later this month.

Of the DNA evidence, Martin said Cannon and his attorneys are “going to have problems with that” but didn’t elaborate on what those problems are. He declined to comment while walking out of the courtroom Tuesday.

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Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, who was one of the prosecutors who helped convict the men, did not return phone calls and an email seeking comment.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett pictured in 2001 on the day a grand jury indicted Cannon and Cochran.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett pictured in 2001 on the day a grand jury indicted Cannon and Cochran. [ FRED BELLET | Tampa Bay Times ]

The state’s theory was this: In the predawn hours of Oct. 3, 1997, Cannon, a family friend, and Cochran, Sharra’s uncle, lured the girl from her home north of Dade City to a field nearby and sexually assaulted her, then stabbed her to death. There were no eyewitnesses.

Key to the case was a man who testified that Cannon described the attack to him in detail while they were in a Pasco County jail pod together. Use of so-called jailhouse informants has come under scrutiny in recent years as advances in DNA technology have helped exonerate people put behind bars by their testimony.

Related: Serial jailhouse informant, con man has deep local history

The other main piece of evidence against Cannon was that his DNA was found on hairs taken from the girl’s body. The defense maintained that they could have come from a visit a couple weeks prior in which Cannon slept on the same couch that Sharra was sleeping on when she was last seen alive. The only physical evidence linking Cochran to the crime was a bite mark on the girl’s left shoulder.

That same bite mark had been used to implicate another man, Dale Morris Jr., in the weeks after the crime. Morris’ public defenders found dental experts who cast doubt on the analysis by the state’s dentists. With no other evidence linking him to the crime, prosecutors dropped the charge. Bite mark evidence has since been widely debunked as unreliable.

Related: State Attorney: DNA exonerates man in 1983 Tampa murder

A jury convicted Cannon of first-degree murder after a seven-day trial in 2005. The next year, Cochran, facing the death penalty if convicted at trial, pleaded guilty to the same charge in exchange for a life sentence.

Gary Steven Cannon, left, and Gary Elishi Cochran were imprisoned in the murder of 9-year-old Sharra Ferger. But new DNA evidence may cast doubt on their convictions.
Gary Steven Cannon, left, and Gary Elishi Cochran were imprisoned in the murder of 9-year-old Sharra Ferger. But new DNA evidence may cast doubt on their convictions. [ Florida Department of Corrections ]

However, a series of court decisions in the last decade triggered a review of one of the cases. Because Cannon was 17 at the time of the crime, he is eligible for resentencing based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that mandatory life sentences for children are unconstitutional. Rather, a court must consider each child’s circumstances and the extent of their role in the crime when determining the sentence.

It’s the latter factor that gave Cannon’s attorneys the latitude to pursue DNA testing. The testing would “offer evidence relevant as to the extent of the Defendant’s participation in the offense and is likely to conclusively identify a perpetrator or perpetrators in the offense,” his attorneys wrote in a motion to release evidence for DNA testing filed in May 2020.

A key aspect of the jail snitch testimony was that Cannon wore a condom during the attack, but, the defense noted in another motion, prosecutors “never asserted or presented any evidence that Cochran wore a condom.”

So when an analysis came back in February excluding Cannon as a contributor to the DNA collected in the rape kit, they asked a judge for permission to test Cochran’s DNA.

“If Mr. Cochran is also excluded as a source of the DNA on those swabs,” his lawyers wrote in a motion filed in March, “such evidence would wholly undercut the State’s theory of the case and would further confirm that a third, unidentified person was in fact the perpetrator of this crime.”

At a hearing in March, Martin, the assistant state attorney, argued that Cochran’s involvement in the crime has no bearing on Cannon’s resentencing.

“I’m suggesting … that we keep our eye on the ball in this particular case,” Martin said, according to a transcript of the proceedings. “We need to get him (Cannon) sentenced. Once he gets sentenced, other motions may be filed … however, any type of testing and analysis of the co-defendant in this case is premature and not relevant in the resentencing of Mr. Cannon.”

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper sided with the defense. The state’s theory rode on the men carrying out the crime together, she said, quoting from a transcript of State Attorney Bartlett’s closing argument during Cannon’s trial.

“That could go to the heart of the state’s theory of the case,” she said. “Therefore, I think it clearly is relevant to the question of Mr. Cannon’s participation.”

Miller, the Innocence Project of Florida attorney for Cochran, compared the situation to a recent high-profile exoneration across Tampa Bay. Robert DuBoise was freed last year after spending 37 years in prison for a murder and rape that DNA evidence proved he didn’t commit. The case against DuBoise relied heavily on bite-mark evidence and testimony from a jail informant.

DuBoise’ defense attorney brought the case to the attention of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren’s conviction review unit, which investigates claims of innocence in past convictions. The unit’s prosecutor worked closely with DuBoise’ lawyers, Miller said, and Warren announced the exoneration himself at a news conference.

The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office doesn’t have such a unit, and Bartlett previously told the Tampa Bay Times he doesn’t see the point in one but would investigate new information raised in past cases.

“You have adjacent counties and you have different approaches to the search for the truth,” Miller said.

Bartlett is up for election next year and has drawn one challenger: Allison Miller, of no relation to the Innocence Project of Florida attorney. A former public defender who worked on Cannon’s case until she resigned from the office in June, she attended Tuesday’s hearing and said afterward the situation reinforces the need for a conviction review unit.

“As the science of DNA testing has evolved becoming more precise, we are seeing too many innocent people have been convicted of crimes they simply did not commit,” she said. “By objecting to DNA testing and insisting on prolonging these hearings in Mr. Cannon’s case, the state is keeping two innocent men in prison while the real killer continues to go free.”

Staff writer Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.