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Man serving life for 1997 Pasco child murder deserves new trial, defense attorneys say

Lawyers for Gary Steven Cannon filed a motion alleging his 2005 trial was rife with bad evidence and prosecutorial misconduct.
Gary Steven Cannon, left, and Gary Elishi Cochran are serving life sentences in the 1997 murder of 9-year-old Sharra Ferger. Cannon's attorneys recently filed a motion saying they've uncovered new evidence that should grant him a new trial. Cochran's attorney plans to file a similar motion.
Gary Steven Cannon, left, and Gary Elishi Cochran are serving life sentences in the 1997 murder of 9-year-old Sharra Ferger. Cannon's attorneys recently filed a motion saying they've uncovered new evidence that should grant him a new trial. Cochran's attorney plans to file a similar motion. [ Florida Department of Corrections ]
Published Sep. 14

A jail snitch and strands of hair were the main pieces of evidence presented in a trial that led jurors to find Gary Steven Cannon guilty of murdering 9-year-old Sharra Ferger in 1997.

Now, more than 15 years after that conviction, Cannon’s attorneys argue they’ve uncovered new evidence to dismantle the state’s case against him.

Along with new DNA evidence that lends credibility to Cannon’s claim of innocence, his attorneys wrote in a recent court filing, prosecutors withheld key information that casts doubt on the credibility of several witnesses — including the jail informant at the heart of the state’s case.

“His case contains nearly all the factors contributing to wrongful convictions,” reads the motion arguing that Cannon, 41, should get a new trial.

The motion, filed Thursday, formalizes a step that Cannon’s attorneys have been hinting at since the DNA analysis came back over the summer. It showed there was foreign DNA inside of Sharra’s body that didn’t belong to Cannon or his co-defendant, Gary Elishi Cochran, both of whom are serving life sentences for one the most heinous crimes in Pasco County history. Cochran’s Innocence Project of Florida attorney plans to file a similar motion for his client.

But the court filing also shed light on other potential issues with the case. Chief among them: A man who said Cannon confessed to the crime while they were jail inmates was given favorable treatment by law enforcement, contrary to what he said before jurors in court, according to the motion.

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

The so-called jail snitch, Randy Kernan, had worked on and off as a confidential informant for the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to the motion. And a letter attached to the filing that Kernan sent to a Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office investigator calls into question Kernan’s testimony at trial that he neither asked for nor received “nothing, not a dime” from prosecutors and law enforcement for coming forward.

Randy Kernan
Randy Kernan [ Florida Department of Corrections ]

Kernan was serving time at Polk Correctional Institution on driving with an invalid license and assault charges when, according to the motion, he sent a letter in December 1999 to the investigator. The previous month, Kernan had testified against Cannon in a robbery trial, which ended in a guilty verdict.

Kernan said he was thankful the investigator “had me moved to POLK ... but you did in fact tell me in dade city that you would get me into work release if I didn’t get into any fights or trouble.”

“All things considered I don’t think I’m asking for much. I got on the stand and came through like a champ,” he wrote, “and I of course still have to testify at the murder trial ... at least if I’m at a small work release center I won’t have to worry about being attacked and I can go home on the weekends.”

He closed the letter emphasizing that it’s not a condition of his willingness to testify but that he was “asking as a friend and a fellow Marine and a guy who’s tried to do the right thing.”

It’s unclear if prosecutors granted his request.

The motion goes on to discuss the changing landscape around the use of jail informants. The filing cited a 2012 Florida Innocence Commission report that found fabricated testimony was a leading cause of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases and that jurors have a hard time rooting out deception from inmate witnesses. The findings prompted the Florida Supreme Court to change jury instructions to encourage more skepticism toward informant testimony.

Kernan, now 60, could not be reached for comment. State Attorney Bruce Bartlett did not return a call and email seeking comment. Bartlett helped prosecute Cannon in 2005 and, in January, was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to lead the State Attorney’s Office after his predecessor, Bernie McCabe, died. Bartlett is up for election next November.

Sharra Ferger
Sharra Ferger [ Times archives ]

Assistant state attorneys Jim Hellickson, who questioned Kernan during the Cannon trial, and Glenn Martin, who has appeared for the state at recent Cannon hearings, also did not return requests for comment.

Cannon’s attorneys raised two other concerns in the motion. Other witnesses testified that a shirt he had worn the night before Sharra’s death was bloody when he was seen the next day. However, the motion says, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement report said the shirt tested negative for blood. Another state witness had a criminal history that wasn’t disclosed in court, which Cannon’s attorneys argue impacts his credibility.

And strands of hair with Cannon’s DNA found on Sharra’s body could have come from a recent visit Cannon had made to the Ferger residence, with the motion noting that Florida courts have repeatedly found that hair “is easily transferred between people and locations.”

At a court hearing Monday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper gave prosecutors 45 days to respond to Cannon’s motion. She will then decide whether to grant Cannon’s request for a hearing where each side will have a chance to present evidence and witnesses to bolster their arguments.