Gary Cannon fought back tears when a Pinellas-Pasco judge sentenced him to life in prison in 2005.
“Nothing was done right,” he said. “You have people lying left and right.”
Cannon maintained his innocence in the rape and murder of 9-year-old Sharra Ferger, a daughter he had babysat.
When a Supreme Court ruling 10 years ago opened up the review of thousands of convictions, defense attorneys renewed their efforts to exonerate Cannon.
Cannon’s lawyers say the case against him was based on faulty evidence and that new DNA test results suggest someone else may be responsible.
“His case contains nearly every factor contributing to wrongful convictions,” they wrote in a motion.
But prosecutors have long maintained that Cannon was guilty. More recently, they 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 whether prosecutors got it right in 2005.
His potential freedom is far from the only thing at stake.
The decision could become a key issue in Pinellas-Pasco’s November state attorney election, the first contested race for the office in three decades.
It’s deeply personal for both candidates.
Holder 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.
“Everything He Deserved”
Sharra Ferger’s body was found in a field north of Dade City on October 3, 1997.
She had been raped and stabbed 46 times.
Within two weeks, police had zeroed in on one suspect: a Sharra neighbor named Dale Morris, whose teeth authorities at the time said 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 weeks before Morris’ trial began.
Years later, in 2001, a grand jury indicted two other men: Cannon and Sharra’s uncle, Gary Elishi Cochran.
The case against them was largely based on the testimony of a prison informant. Randy Kernan told authorities that Cannon described in detail how he and Cochran lured Sharra into a field and then raped and killed her.
The alleged confession came while Cannon was in jail for an unrelated armed robbery with a 70-year-old man that happened weeks after Sharra’s death. Kernan also testified against Cannon in this case, 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 the hair found on her body matched Cannon’s.
Defense attorneys said the hair may have come from a couch at Sharra’s house, where Cannon slept for a few weeks before she was killed.
The physical evidence against Cochran was the bite mark – the same one that wrongly implicated Morris.
Cannon was tried in 2005. Cochran pleaded guilty the following 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 asked for Cannon’s death as well if he hadn’t been barred by his age. Cannon was 17 at the time of the murder and a Supreme Court ruling barred minors from receiving the harshest sentences.
“He got everything he deserved,” Bartlett said then.
Cannon attempted to appeal his conviction to no avail. Then, in 2012, the Supreme Court made thousands of cases eligible for re-sentencing, including his own.
New lawyers from Cannon, a group of public defenders, pored over old evidence, depositions and trial transcripts, preparing for a possible re-sentencing 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 guilt.
The results, they said, cast doubt on Cannon’s conviction.
Tests showed there was DNA inside Sharra that didn’t belong to her. But it came from an unknown person, the lawyers said. It didn’t fit Cannon or Cochran.
“People are inherently fallible”
Cannon’s case hits a new era for post-conviction claims of innocence – and highlights an important difference between the two prosecutorial candidates.
For years, defense attorneys and criminal justice reform groups such as the Innocence Project poked holes in old convictions, setting the stage for a wave of exonerations in the 1990s and early 2000s.
More recently, prosecutors’ offices across the country — including a handful in Florida — have joined in the effort to stamp out wrongful convictions.
These newly formed conviction review units often work in tandem with defense attorneys, an unusual show of cooperation that reviews evidence, removes procedural hurdles and speeds up the process.
Unit directors look for information the jury missed at trial or potential pitfalls in the investigation. This could be DNA evidence that hasn’t been tested, an alibi that hasn’t been fully explored, or uncorroborated witness testimony. They have access to prosecutor’s files and lawyer’s notes which are often difficult to obtain.
Hillsborough State’s Attorney Andrew Warren, who led a reform campaign and ousted a longtime incumbent, launched such a unit in 2018.
Within two years, he had exonerated a man who had been sentenced to death for the 1983 rape and murder of a woman in Tampa.
Robert Duboise’s conviction was based on bite mark evidence, which has since been discredited by scientists as unreliable. According to the Innocence Project, tooth imprints aren’t necessarily unique, and human skin is a poor medium for capturing an accurate bite mark.
The conviction was also based on the testimony of a prison informant. This type of testimony has come under intense scrutiny in recent years due to its frequent implication in convictions later refuted 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 had cleared Duboise of the crimes. After 37 years, he was released from prison.
The Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor’s office, however, does not have such a cell.
Miller, who spent 13 years as a public defender for Pinellas-Pasco, says the Cannon case proves one is needed. If elected, Miller, 39, plans to create a sentencing integrity unit within a larger civil rights unit that would also review 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.
Bartlett, 67, declined to be interviewed for this story. In an email, he said his office is reviewing alleged issues with a conviction filed within two years of a final appeal.
“The facts and circumstances of each case are taken seriously by this office and always have been,” he said.
But this process is different from conviction review units, which focus specifically on declarations of innocence and are not limited by time constraints. Shortly after being named state’s attorney following the death of his predecessor Bernie McCabe, Bartlett told The Times he had no plans to create one.
“I don’t want to dedicate prosecutors to sitting down and sorting through cases…without any suggestion that the problems exist,” he said.
Conviction review units tend to be a partisan issue. While the vast majority of Florida’s 20 state attorneys’ offices do not have one, five of the six offices that do are led by Democrats. Miller is running as a Democrat, Bartlett as a Republican.
Ed Brodsky, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association and attorney for Manatee and Sarasota counties, said having such a unit “kinda leads people to believe that prosecutors aren’t already committed to s ‘to ensure that the innocent are not convicted’.
But resisting this kind of reconsideration, say supporters of the units, ignores the reality that forensic science has advanced.
“I literally don’t see any downside,” said St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican who has made criminal justice reform a core tenet of his work.
Advocates of unity recognize that the process can be exhausting for victims and their loved ones. Karen Patti, Sharra’s mother, said her stomach hurt when she learned from a prosecutor that Cannon was seeking to overturn his conviction.
“I think he’s still guilty,” Patti said in an interview recently.
But the ultimate goal, say proponents of conviction review, is to punish the right person.
“Those who question should ask themselves, ‘What is your role in the criminal justice system? “My goal is to get to the truth.”
‘We will never know’
Lawyers for Cochran and Cannon say they have identified other serious flaws in the case that prosecutors have brought against them.
Cannon’s attorneys found evidence to suggest the informant could have received favorable treatment in exchange for his cooperation with authorities, which contradicts what he told the jury during Cannon’s trial.
The state’s attorney’s office fought off defense efforts throughout the process, according to court records. Many of their objections have focused on when the defense files its documents in court or the order in which the cases should proceed.
Miller, who was on Cannon’s defense team until she resigned as public defender to run against Bartlett, gave this reading of the prosecutors’ maneuvers:
“The state is trying to stick with his conviction, and…they seem to be trying to make it last, so if they lose, (Cannon) will be spending even more time in jail.”
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper, for the most part, sided with Cannon. While she disagrees that the evidence conclusively disproves the state’s case, the presence of DNA from an unknown party is “critical,” she wrote in a statement. case.
Until Tepper rules on the evidence in June, each side will likely continue to clash. On Tuesday, prosecutors filed a motion to bar Cannon’s attorneys from deposing a state attorney’s investigator who they say has key information about the case.
“Unfortunately,” Deputy Chief Public Defender Greg Williams said, “we will never know what a collaborative effort between the state and the defense would have accomplished.”