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Falsely accused, man forgives and dies

In 1997, suspect Dale Morris Jr. was accused of fatally stabbing Sharra Ferger 30 times. Later, two others were arrested in the case.

By JAMAL THALJI
Published April 6, 2005


Thirteen days after the brutal stabbing and rape of the 9-year-old girl, they came for Dale Morris Jr.

Morris, a neighbor, was the prime suspect in the violent death of Sharra Ferger on Oct. 3, 1997, in Blanton. Pasco County sheriff's detectives came to his home at 2:16 a.m. Oct. 16 and arrested him on a charge of first-degree murder.

His teeth matched bite marks on her shoulder, investigators said, and there was DNA evidence. The sheriff himself said Morris stabbed her 30 times.

The next day Morris received his first visitor in jail: his pastor. Separated by glass, they knelt and prayed. Morris cried. Once, he resisted his spouse's urgings to turn to faith. But no more.

"That's when Dale accepted God into his life," said ex-wife Sandi Christy.

Yet Morris and his family swore he was innocent.

His lawyer said he passed a polygraph test. DNA tests did not link him to the crime. An expert said Morris could not have made the bite marks.

Four months after his arrest, Morris was freed. He had been falsely arrested. He was innocent.

The ordeal was over in one sense, and in another it never ended. For Morris, and those closest to him, were forever changed. And not for the worse.

Morris, who died at age 52 Thursday at his parents' Lakeland home, would not have been the man he was, the husband, the father, the friend, without those four terrible months.

"You could just see the shine in him," said Christy, 44. "Before you couldn't. Before all this happened and he got saved he didn't have that shine."

The family believes Morris died of a massive heart attack or an aneurism. He was on a heart transplant list, though the family believed medication was improving his condition.

His funeral was Sunday at Grace Church in Lakeland, where more than 125 people packed inside to say goodbye. He was known at the church for his love of Christian music and his expert ways with the guitars. On Sunday, those guitars surrounded his coffin.

Morris divorced his wife last year, a year after he was diagnosed with heart trouble, she said. After seeing her husband jailed for a brutal murder he didn't commit, then having her father die in 2001, Christy said Morris didn't want her to watch him die.

"That's when I realized that it's time to let go," she said, "and that's when I realized why he was letting me go. He didn't want to put me through that, and I thanked him for doing that."

In June 2001 Ferger's uncle, 39-year-old Gary Elisha Cochran and Gary Steven Cannon, 24, were indicted on first-degree murder charges in the girl's death.

Morris was never bitter, those closest to him said. He was never bitter that he was falsely arrested, or because of his well-publicized four months in jail, or over his civil suit for that arrest being whittled down to a $25,000 settlement, or even for his failing health.

"He never had the easiest time in jail," said one of his defense attorneys, assistant public defender Tom Hanlon. "But he never got down, never got bitter."

Hanlon said Morris changed his life forever. That's the reason why the veteran lawyer can't talk about his former client without tearing up.

"It taught me to listen to people," Hanlon said. "As a lawyer, you routinely hear all these stories and you tend to get a little calloused and kind of blow things off.

"That won't ever happen again. He made sure. It was a case I didn't want, and then it ended up being the biggest damn blessing you'd ever want in your life."

Morris was confused and scared in jail, but never angry. He was steadfast in his innocence and forgiving of those who believed otherwise.

"He wasn't bitter about it, he forgave everybody," his ex-wife said. "It was harder for me to forgive them. But I eventually did."

A week after his release from jail, the couple moved to Lakeland for five years, then returned to Dade City, where they divorced after 13 years of marriage. It was while in Lakeland last year that they met with one of the lead investigators on the Ferger case, Pasco sheriff's Detective Allen Proctor.

"He came to Lakeland and said he was very sorry for what happened to us," Christy said. "My husband took his apology right then and there and accepted it. I couldn't at that time. I was too bitter, because I'd been through so much. But after talking with Dale, I forgave him.

"Dale did it instantly. But then he was a great man."

[Last modified April 6, 2005, 01:07:18]


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