Man says he’s innocent of Pasco child murder. Should prosecutors help him?

Two candidates running for Pinellas-Pasco state attorney have differing approaches to investigating claims of innocence — and how to handle a case they both worked on.
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 ]
Published Feb. 17, 2022|Updated Feb. 18, 2022

Gary Cannon held back tears when a Pinellas-Pasco judge sentenced him to life in prison in 2005.

“Ain’t nothing been done right,” he said. “You got people lying left and right.”

Cannon has maintained his innocence in the rape and murder of 9-year-old Sharra Ferger, a girl he had babysat.

When a Supreme Court ruling 10 years ago opened thousands of convictions for review, defense lawyers renewed their efforts to exonerate Cannon.

Cannon’s attorneys say the case against him was based on flawed evidence and that the results of new DNA testing suggest someone else may have been responsible.

“His case contains nearly all the factors contributing to wrongful convictions,” they wrote in a motion.

But prosecutors have long maintained that Cannon was guilty. More recently, they have fought against DNA testing and balked at requests for a new trial, records show.

In June, a judge will decide whether Cannon should get another shot or if prosecutors got it right in 2005.

His potential freedom is far from the only thing at stake.

The ruling could become a key issue in this November’s Pinellas-Pasco state attorney election, the first contested race for the office in three decades.

It’s deeply personal for both candidates.

The incumbent, Bruce Bartlett, was one of the prosecutors who tried the case in 2005. His opponent, former public defender Allison Miller, served on Cannon’s defense team.

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

‘Every bit of what he deserved’

Sharra Ferger’s body was found in a field north of Dade City on Oct. 3, 1997.

She had been raped and stabbed 46 times.

Within two weeks, police had zeroed in on a suspect: a neighbor of Sharra’s named Dale Morris, whose teeth, authorities said at the time, matched a bite mark on the girl’s shoulder.

The Public Defender’s Office, convinced of Morris’ innocence, found experts who refuted the theory. Later, more physical evidence ruled out Morris. Prosecutors dropped the charges a few weeks before Morris’ trial was set to start.

Years later, in 2001, a grand jury indicted two other men: Cannon and Sharra’s uncle, Gary Elishi Cochran.

The case against them relied heavily on testimony from a jailhouse informant. Randy Kernan told authorities that Cannon described in detail how he and Cochran lured Sharra into a field, then raped and killed her.

The alleged confession happened while Cannon was in jail for an unrelated strong-arm robbery of a 70-year-old man that occurred a few weeks after Sharra’s death. Kernan testified against Cannon in that case, too, which had no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Cannon’s current attorneys plan to challenge that conviction.

There were no witnesses to Sharra’s murder, but hairs found on her body matched Cannon’s.

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Sharra Ferger
Sharra Ferger [ Times archives ]

Defense attorneys said the hair could have come from a couch at Sharra’s home, where Cannon had slept a few weeks before she was killed.

The physical evidence against Cochran was the bite mark — the same one that erroneously implicated Morris.

Cannon went to trial in 2005. Cochran pleaded guilty the next year to avoid the death penalty.

Both men are serving life sentences.

Speaking to the Tampa Bay Times after Cannon’s 2005 trial, Bartlett said he would have sought death for Cannon, too, if he wasn’t barred by his age. Cannon was 17 at the time of the murder, and a Supreme Court decision banned juveniles from receiving the harshest punishment.

“He got every bit of what he deserved,” Bartlett said then.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett. [ Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office ]

Cannon tried to appeal his conviction to no avail. Then, in 2012, the Supreme Court made thousands of cases eligible for resentencing — including his own.

Cannon’s new lawyers, a group of public defenders, pored over old evidence, depositions and trial transcripts, preparing for an eventual resentencing hearing. And they asked a judge to release old DNA evidence in the case for testing, arguing that part of the process involved assessing the defendant’s culpability.

The results, they said, cast doubt on Cannon’s conviction.

The testing showed there was DNA inside of Sharra that didn’t belong to her. But it came from an unknown party, the attorneys said. It didn’t match Cannon or Cochran.

‘People are inherently fallible’

Cannon’s case comes at a new era for post-conviction innocence claims — and highlights an important difference between the two candidates for state attorney.

For years, defense attorneys and criminal justice reform groups such as the Innocence Project have poked holes in old convictions, ushering in a wave of exonerations through the 1990s and early 2000s.

More recently, prosecutors’ offices across the country — including a handful in Florida — have joined the effort to root out wrongful convictions.

These newly formed conviction review units often work in tandem with defense attorneys, an unusual show of cooperation that reexamines evidence, removes procedural barriers, and speeds up the process.

Unit directors look for information the jury didn’t hear at trial, or for possible pitfalls in the investigation. That could be DNA evidence that wasn’t tested, an alibi that wasn’t fully explored or uncorroborated witness testimony. They have access to prosecutor files and attorney notes that are often hard to get.

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, who ran a reform campaign and unseated a longtime incumbent, started such a unit in 2018.

Within two years, it had exonerated a man who had been sentenced to death in the 1983 rape and murder of a woman in Tampa.

Robert Duboise’ conviction hinged on bite mark evidence, which has since been discredited by scientists as unreliable. Teeth impressions aren’t necessarily unique, according to the Innocence Project, and human skin is a bad medium to capture an accurate bite mark.

The conviction also relied on testimony from a jailhouse informant. That kind of testimony has come under intense scrutiny in recent years for its frequent involvement in convictions later disproven by modern DNA testing. The Innocence Project put the count at one in five.

Sure enough, in 2020, Warren announced that DNA evidence located by his conviction review unit cleared Duboise of the crimes. After 37 years, he walked out of prison.

The Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor’s office, however, doesn’t have such a unit.

Miller, who spent 13 years as a Pinellas-Pasco public defender, says the Cannon case proves one is needed. If elected, Miller, 39, plans to start a conviction integrity unit within a broader civil rights unit that would also examine allegations of racially motivated prosecutions.

“Knowing that people are inherently fallible, I don’t know why we would expect the results of the criminal justice system to be infallible,” she said.

Allison Miller is running for Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney.
Allison Miller is running for Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Bartlett, 67, declined to be interviewed for this story. In an email, he said his office reviews alleged problems with a conviction filed within two years of a final appeal.

“The facts and circumstances of every case are taken seriously by this office and always have been,” he said.

But that process is different from conviction review units, which focus specifically on claims of innocence and are not barred by time constraints. Soon after he was appointed state attorney in the wake of predecessor Bernie McCabe’s death, Bartlett told the Times he had no plans to start one.

“I don’t want to dedicate prosecutors to sit around and pick apart cases … without any suggestion that the issues exist,” he said.

Conviction review units tend to be a partisan issue. While the vast majority of Florida’s 20 state attorney offices don’t have them, five of the six offices that do are headed by Democrats. Miller is running as a Democrat, Bartlett as a Republican.

Ed Brodsky, the president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association and the state attorney for Manatee and Sarasota counties, said having such a unit “kind of leads people to believe that prosecutors are not already committed to ensuring innocent folks are not convicted.”

But resisting this type of reexamination, proponents of the units say, ignores the reality that forensic science has advanced.

“I literally see no downside,” said St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican who has made criminal justice reform a core tenet of his work.

Unit supporters acknowledge the process can be grueling for victims and their loved ones. Karen Patti, Sharra’s mother, said she was sick to her stomach when she learned from a prosecutor that Cannon was seeking to overturn his conviction.

“I think he’s still guilty,” Patti said recently in an interview.

But the ultimate goal, conviction review proponents say, is to punish the right person.

“Those who question it need to question, ‘What’s your role in the criminal justice system?’” said Theresa Jean-Pierre Coy, a career defense attorney who took over Hillsborough’s conviction review unit this year. “My goal is to get to the truth.”

Related: Will voters finally get a choice in Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor race?

‘We will never know’

Attorneys for Cochran and Cannon say they have identified other serious flaws in the case prosecutors made against them.

Cannon’s lawyers found evidence that suggests the informant may have gotten favorable treatment in exchange for his cooperation with authorities, which contradicts what he told the jury at Cannon’s trial.

Judge Lynn Tepper speaks during a hearing in August in the case of Gary Steven Cannon, who was convicted in the 1997 rape and murder of 9-year-old Sharra Ferger.
Judge Lynn Tepper speaks during a hearing in August in the case of Gary Steven Cannon, who was convicted in the 1997 rape and murder of 9-year-old Sharra Ferger. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The State Attorney’s Office has fought the defense’s efforts throughout the process, court records show. Many of their objections have focused on the timing of the defense’s court filings or the order matters should proceed.

Miller, who was on Cannon’s defense team until she resigned from her job as a public defender to run against Bartlett, gave this read on maneuvering by prosecutors:

“The state is trying to maintain its conviction, and … they appear to be trying to draw it out so if they lose, (Cannon is) still going to have spent more time in jail.”

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper has, for the most part, sided with Cannon. While she disagreed that the evidence conclusively refutes the state’s case, the presence of DNA from an unknown party is “critical,” she wrote in a filing.

Until Tepper rules on the evidence in June, each side is likely to continue sparring. On Tuesday, prosecutors filed a motion seeking to bar Cannon’s lawyers from deposing a state attorney’s investigator they say has key information about the case.

“Unfortunately,” said Chief Assistant Public Defender Greg Williams, “we will never know what a collaborative effort between the state and the defense would have accomplished.”