Post-Conviction Innocence Claims in Florida – the Gary Cannon Case

March 3, 2022 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements

The case of one Florida man is yet another example of the new era for post-conviction innocence claims. Across the U.S. newly formed conviction review units are starting to work alongside defense attorneys. The purpose of these units is to reexamine evidence, look for information that wasn’t seen or heard during the initial trial, or find possible flaws within the investigation. This can include DNA evidence that was never tested, a witness that never provided evidence in trial, or an alibi defense that should have been looked at more closely.

Over the years, defense attorneys have started to work with criminal justice reform organizations to try and poke holes in old convictions. This has ushered a wave of exonerations from the 1990s through the early 2000s. Today, there is an influx of cases throughout the country that should be reexamined due to the fear that the defendant was wrongfully convicted.

As a result, many prosecutors’ offices in Florida have begun trying to pick out cases that may have resulted in a wrongful conviction. A review of wrongful convictions, along with a recent example, and resources for wrongful convictions will be covered.

Reviewing Wrongful Convictions in Florida

Under the Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850, a defendant who has not been sentenced to death may file a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct a sentence under this rule if the defendant has been convicted of a crime following a trial or plea of guilty or nolo contendere. The grounds for seeking relief under this rule are as follows:

  • The sentence or judgment was imposed in violation of the provisions of the United States constitution or Florida’s constitution;
  • The court didn’t have jurisdiction to enter the judgment against the defendant;
  • The court didn’t have jurisdiction to sentence the defendant;
  • The sentence exceeded the maximum sentence permitted by the law;
  • The plea was not voluntary;
  • The judgment or sentence is otherwise subject to collateral attack.

Case Example – Garry Cannon’s Plea for Release

After the Supreme Court opened thousands of convictions up for review 10 years ago, criminal cases that were closed were reopened for investigation. One of these cases belongs to Gary Cannon, who was sentenced to life in prison back in 2005.

“Ain’t nothing been done right,” Cannon said with tears in his eyes when the judge from Pinellas-Pasco County gave him a life sentence. He stated, “You got people lying left and right.”

Cannon was accused of the rape and murder in the case of 9-year-old Sharra Ferger. The young girl had been raped and stabbed 46 times before Dade City police found her body on October 3rd, 1997. The police had originally pinned down the suspect as Dale Morris, who was Sharra’s neighbor. At the time, authorities had matched a bite mark on Sharra’s shoulder with Morris’ dental records.

However, the Public Defender’s Officer had experts refute the theory, leading them to believe Morris was innocent. In 2001, Cannon and Sharra’s uncle, Gary Elishi Cochran, were indicted by a grand jury.

Much of the case relied heavily on an informant from the jailhouse who provided testimony. The informant, Randy Kernan, said in his testimony that Cannon described in detail how he took Sharra into a field and proceeded to rape and murder her. Cannon was in the jail for a separate case at that time—a strong-arm robbery of an elderly man that happened prior to Sharra’s death.

While there were no witnesses to Sharra’s murder, Cannon’s hair was found on her body. Attorneys argued that it could have been from Sharra’s house, as Cannon used to babysit her. The bite mark on Sharra’s shoulder was pinned on Cochran, and he plead guilty in 2005 to avoid the death penalty. At the time of Sharra’s death, Cannon was ineligible to receive the death penalty because he was only 17.

Cannon had tried in the past to appeal the decision but was unsuccessful. In 2012, the Supreme Court reopened cases that they believed were eligible for resentencing. Cannon’s case was included in the cases brought up by the Supreme Court.

As a result, a group of public defenders have spent time going over the evidence, depositions, and trial transcripts from Cannon’s case. They have now asked a judge to release the old DNA evidence for retesting, and to assess the defendant’s culpability.

The results from the test show that there was DNA in Sharra not belonging to Cannon or Cochran. These results cast doubt on Cannon’s conviction. In a similar case reviewed by the Florida Innocence Project,  Robert Duboise was released from prison after a wrongful conviction—37 years later. The conviction review unit from the Office of State Attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit was able to review and clear Duboise from the crime, with the help of the Innocence Project. However, the Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor’s office does not yet have this type of unit.

In  opposition to this type of unit, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association Ed Brosky said having a unit like this, “kind of leads people to believe that prosecutors are not already committed to ensuring innocent folks are not convicted.”

However, refusing to look back and reevaluate old cases would ignore the fact that there have been immense advancements in forensic science. St. Petersburg Senator Jeff Brandes says he sees no downside in the reexamination, as he has made criminal justice reform a core tenet of his work.

Sharra’s mother, Karen Patti, stated in an interview that she still believes Cannon is guilty. She felt sick after hearing the news that Cannon was seeing his conviction overturned. Attorneys for both Cannon and Cochran have since identified other flaws in the case against their clients.

The evidence will be ruled on by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper, who has mostly sided with Cannon so far. Prosecutors have filed a motion to prevent  Cannon’s lawyers from deposing an investigator for the State that they say holds key information regarding the case. The ruling is set for June.

Resources – Florida Innocence Project

One of the key resources for reviewing wrongful convictions in Florida is the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF). The mission of the organization is to find and free those who are innocent from Florida prisons. They aim to help those exonerated back into society, while working to reform the criminal justice system. The following is a list of how IPF works towards helping innocent people get out of Florida prisons:

  • Screen and investigate criminal cases where innocence claims are identified;
  • Securing DNA testing where there is biological evidence that exists;
  • Advocating for the release and/or exoneration of individuals whose cases present innocent claims based on evidence of actual evidence;
  • Providing aftercare services and help for exonerees to transition back into society;
  • Advocating for necessary criminal justice reform to avoid wrongful incarcerations in the future.

For more information about the organization and seeking their help, call (850) 561-6767.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

If you or a loved one have been accused of a crime, it is imperative to seek out quality legal help immediately. An experienced defense attorney can provide the best legal advice and defense to work towards your freedom before needing to even worry about a wrongful conviction. Don Pumphrey and his team have represented clients all across the state of Florida. Whatever the case, Pumphrey Law Firm is here to help. They understand what is at stake and are prepared to stand in your corner. Call (850) 681-7777 today and receive a free consultation regarding your case. 

Written by Karissa Key

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