Ferger trial graphic, says state attorney

After years of delays, jury selection started Monday. Citing pretrial publicity, the defense asks the judge to move the trial to Pinellas County.
By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
Published September 13, 2005

DADE CITY - Potential jurors in the trial of Gary Steven Cannon were warned right away Monday about what they will face if chosen to decide his guilt or innocence.

"This is a charge of first-degree murder," prosecutor Bruce Bartlett said. "It involves the death of a 9-year-old girl. The evidence will be graphic.

"It will not be a nice thing."

Sharra Ferger was found half-naked, stabbed dozens of times, sexually assaulted, with a brutal bite mark on her left shoulder.

Her body was discovered Oct. 3, 1997, face down in a field near her Blanton home, authorities say, hours after she was lured out into the dark by someone familiar to her.

Four years later, two were indicted in connection with the killing: Cannon, 25, a family acquaintance, and Gary Elishi Cochran, Sharra's 39-year-old uncle. Eight years later, after countless legal delays, Cannon is the first to be tried in her slaying.

Lawyers for Cannon, facing a life sentence if convicted, would not say whether they planned to put their client on the witness stand.

"That remains to be seen," attorney Bjorn Brunvand said after court Monday. "I can't tell you one way or the other at this stage.

During the trial's first phase, jury selection, Cannon's lawyers stressed their client's constitutional protection from self-incrimination to prospective jurors.

"The defense does not have to present any witnesses," attorney Danny Hernandez told them, "and the defendant doesn't have to testify."

Jurors are barred from knowledge of Cannon's adult and juvenile crimes - unless he testifies. Then the state is free to bring up his felony convictions - but not the charges, or details of the crimes.

Which is why his defense team was especially concerned about pretrial publicity surrounding one of Pasco's most high-profile murder cases. Stories in the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune printed Sunday and Monday discussed the allegations and evidence against Cannon, his substance abuse problem and criminal record.

That led to a defense motion to move the trial to Pinellas County. "My concern is that it would be very difficult to find a fair and impartial jury in Pasco County," Brunvand said.

A handful of potential jurors had read articles and seen televised news reports about the case. A few more remembered when Sharra's body was found in 1997. But Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper said it was too early to move the trial: "You do realize I can't consider that request until we can't pick a jury."

A jury wasn't picked Monday. Selection will continue today.

Cannon sat silently throughout the proceedings, his hair closely cropped, dressed in a tan dress shirt, slacks and sweater. To stay warm in the frigid courtroom he pulled the sweater sleeves over his hands. He spent most of the day making eye contact with his mother, Edna Jenkins.

Jury selection provided a few light moments. Even Cannon chuckled from time to time. Like when one woman said she'd already tried one case, and hoped to avoid more jury duty.

"I thought I could sneak away with it when I turned 70," she said. "But you caught up with me."

Mostly, though, it was a somber affair as some grappled with the nature of the allegations.

One juror said five of her relatives had been sexually abused.

"So being fair and impartial would be an issue for you?" the judge asked.

"It is an issue," the juror said.

Another juror said her daughter had been raped and the attacker convicted. Still another juror said the March kidnapping and killing of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in Citrus County gave her a "flashback" to the Ferger case.

The judge prodded her to reveal more. The juror said a childhood friend had been raped and killed.

"It was years ago," the juror said. "I try to bury it."

One juror was so emotional she couldn't tell her story in public. In a private bench conference, the judge gave her a tissue, then excused her from the courtroom.

At day's end, the judge did grant one defense request: to get Cannon out of the county jail's psychiatric ward where he was being kept away from other inmates during trial. His lawyers said it was too noisy for him to sleep.

Instead, he'll switch places with another inmate: Cochran, his alleged accomplice.

"Mr. Cochran won't be getting a good night's sleep," the judge said. "Mr. Cannon will."