This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
The 1997 rape and murder of 9-year-old Sharra Ferger remains one of Pasco County’s most notorious crimes — for its brutality but also for its faltering trip through the justice system. All these years later, questions remain about the case against one of the men convicted in the girl’s death. But prosecutors have fought DNA testing and defense efforts for a new trial, even though those things could foreclose all doubt and finally bring the closure that is so badly needed in this tragic case.
Sharra’s battered body was found in a field near her home in the rural area of Blanton, north of Dade City. She had been sexually assaulted and stabbed 46 times, including several wounds that penetrated her skull. Investigators focused on a bite mark on her shoulder, which led to the arrest of Dale Morris, whose teeth supposedly matched Sharra’s injury. The sheriff himself said Morris stabbed her 30 times. But Morris said he was innocent. Bite mark evidence is unreliable at best and bogus science at worst, and the case against Morris fell apart weeks before he was to be tried for murder.
Later, a grand jury indicted two other men — Gary Cochran, Sharra’s uncle, and Gary Cannon, who was 17 at the time and had been Sharra’s babysitter. Cochran ultimately pleaded guilty to the crime to avoid the death penalty. The physical evidence against him: the same bite mark once incorrectly attributed to Morris.
Cannon, who has always maintained his innocence, went to trial and was convicted based largely on the testimony of a jailhouse informant, who testified that Cannon had described to him how he and Cochran lured Sharra into a field, then raped and killed her. Hairs found on her body matched Cannon’s, but defense attorneys said they could have come from the couch in Sharra’s house, where Cannon had slept weeks before the girl died. No other physical evidence linked Cannon to the murder.
Now, Cannon’s new attorneys say recent testing found DNA inside Sharra’s body that did not belong to her — nor to Cannon or Cochran. They also claim the jail informant may have gotten favorable treatment in exchange for his cooperation, contrary to what jurors were told during the trial. Given the reliability of modern DNA testing and the unreliability of jailhouse snitches, there is more than enough reason here to follow this new evidence wherever it leads.
That should be the goal of defense attorneys and prosecutors alike — to get to the truth. But the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s office has fought efforts to reopen this case. One of the prosecutors in Cannon’s trial was Bruce Bartlett, who was appointed Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney last year. He has opposed creating a conviction review unit to ensure the integrity of prosecutions when new evidence emerges. Such units are becoming more common in state attorneys’ office — including in Hillsborough where a prosecutor and defense attorneys worked together to exonerate a man convicted of a 1983 rape and murder in Tampa.
Gary Cannon is serving a life sentence after being convicted of killing Sharra Ferger 25 years ago. A judge will rule in the coming months on the new evidence and decide whether Cannon deserves a new trial. The discovery of foreign DNA in the girl’s body, combined with a lack of physical evidence and questions around witness credibility raise reasonable doubt about whether Cannon is truly guilty. Prosecutors should be as eager as anyone to find out for sure.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.