St. Petersburg Times
Special report
Video report
  • For their own good
    Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
  • More video reports
Multimedia report
Print Email this storyEmail story Comment Email editor
Fill out this form to email this article to a friend
Your name Your email
Friend's name Friend's email
Your message

Defense rests its case in Cannon's trial

Gary Cannon's lawyers hope to create doubt about the state's witnesses in the sex crime trial.

Published September 20, 2005

DADE CITY - Prosecutors spent last week trying to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Gary Steven Cannon took part in the rape and stabbing death of 9-year-old Sharra Ferger eight years ago.

Witnesses told jurors he disappeared the night she was lured from her home. He showed up at the house he'd been staying in the next day with a bloody shirt; a knife he had borrowed from a witness was missing. Former jail inmates said he not only confessed to the crime, but said he enjoyed it. Forensic experts linked his DNA to her body.

Monday was the defense's turn to put on its case.

"What says the defense?" Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper said.

"Your honor, at this time the defense rests," attorney Danny Hernandez said.

Their client facing life in prison if convicted, Cannon's lawyers did not call witnesses, did not present evidence and Cannon himself did not testify on his own behalf. In court, however, the state bears the burden of proof.

Closing arguments are 9 a.m. today. Then the first-degree murder case goes to the jury.

The defense had intended to call at least one witness, former jail inmate Sean Schoepflin. Lawyers once believed he would testify that the defendant could not have made any admissions in jail.

Schoepflin flew in Sunday from Phoenix and gave his deposition early Monday. But when the trial resumed, the defense did not call him as a witness. Neither side would comment on his deposition.

The judge had Cannon swear an oath and testify that he agreed with his lawyers.

"What is your decision about calling other witnesses?" Tepper asked.

"I want to rest," Cannon said.

"You want to rest?" the judge said. "And you understand you have the right to testify, regardless of what your attorneys think you should or shouldn't do. Have you discussed it with them?"

"Yes, ma'am," Cannon said. "I'm not going to testify."

The state rested after just minutes of testimony from one witness. Prosecutors recalled Melissa Suddeth, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime lab analyst supervisor. During her testimony Friday, the defense insinuated that DNA evidence could have been contaminated in the lab. Two of the six hairs recovered from Sharra's body showed mixtures of DNA from the victim and the defendant.

Executive Assistant State Attorney Doug Crow went after that theory. Suddeth said the fibers taken from Sharra were tested in October 1997. The first sample from Cannon arrived in December 1998.

"There's no possibility that testing was affected in any way by Gary Cannon's DNA?" Crow said.

"There isn't any possible way that the DNA sample of Gary Cannon could have contaminated the other samples prior to the submission of the DNA of Gary Cannon," Suddeth said.

What will the defense rely on? Whatever doubt it created in the minds of jurors while grilling the state's witnesses.

The defense could again attack the state's competence by invoking the false 1997 arrest of Dale Morris Jr. He was exonerated in 1998, and Cannon and Gary Elishi Cochran were indicted in 2001. Cochran goes to trial in December.

The defense's arguments: Cannon's DNA could have come from fibers left at the Ferger home, where he briefly stayed months before; the body, crime scene and forensic evidence could have been contaminated; and no inmate in his right mind would risk his own safety by admitting to victimizing a child.

Cannon's alibi is that he was with friends, watching a Green Bay Packers-Tampa Bay Buccaneers game Thursday night, Oct. 2, when Sharra disappeared. But the state said the Packers' 1997 schedule shows the Battle of the Bays was Sunday, Oct 5.

The defense noted that Cannon's host was a die-hard Packers fan with plenty of old game tapes.

"There's a good chance you might have some prior tapes of the Battle of the Bays, " attorney Bjorn Brunvand told the witness Thursday.

The defense also went after Cannon's alleged jailhouse confessions while questioning former jail inmate Lewis Moores II on Friday.

"If you've got information about molesting or killing a child," Hernandez said, "that's the last thing you would want to talk about, is that correct?"

"That is correct, sir," Moores said.

[Last modified September 20, 2005, 01:55:19]

Share your thoughts on this story

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Subscribe to the Times
Click here for daily delivery
of the St. Petersburg Times.

Email Newsletters