In this series of interviews I have had the good fortune to meet a number of people who have had a real passion and understanding of the law. Some have wanted to uphold it and some to amend it. During the last month I have however met a lady, who had no interest in the law at all. She kind of “fell into the system” so to speak. At 26 years of age she had the American dream; a husband Jesse Tafero who was her “soul mate” and two “wonderful children”. Then one evening she met Walter Rhodes and experienced the American nightmare. She was ultimately to spend seventeen years on death row. This is the story of Sunny Jacobs in her own words.

On the evening of 20th February 1976, Sunny Jacobs through the failing of her motor vehicle “it was the kind of car that just spewed black smoke” was forced with her family to take a lift with one of Jesse’s friends ex-con Walter Rhodes.

The journey through Florida was tiring and eventually it was agreed that they take a rest and a few hours sleep. They pulled over into a rest area. A state trooper Phillip Black and a visiting Canadian Constable Donald Irwin were undertaking a routine inspection of the vehicles in the rest area.

“Well there was nothing going on, there was no crime, we had just pulled over to a rest area which is part of the highway and we were resting. There was no reason for anything happening”

But something did happen. A gun was spotted between Rhodes’ legs. Black radioed in details of the gun to the police station to discover that Rhodes not only had a criminal record, but was on parole. “that changed everything because having a gun is a violation of your parole and he was immediately going to be taken back to prison, that was it. And that created a different situation.” 

As Rhodes had no intention of going back to prison, he pulled out a second gun and fired.

“I covered the children [in the car]. And then when the shooting stopped I looked up to see where Jessie was…… to see if he was ok. And he was standing there in the middle of the cars. And Walter Rhodes was running between…., around the cars with a gun in his hand saying that we were to take the police car and to hurry”.

Black and Irwin were dead. Rhodes had shot and killed both of them.

“Walter Rhodes then ordered us in to the police car. At that point we were kidnapped. Because we did not have a choice. Jessie said that if we did not listen to him he might kill us as witnesses so we had to go with him”

Rhodes bundled his captives in the police car and within moments was driving at speed in an attempt to evade the chasing police helicopters and cars. In the melee that followed Rhodes was shot and injured and Sunny, Jessie and their family were released from his custody into the polices’.

“Oh I thought we were being rescued.  When the police came I thought that that was our salvation, but then as they did not really know what was going on they just arrested everybody. And that was the beginning of the ordeal.”

Whilst Sunny and Jessie were explaining that they were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time and that they were little more than innocent bystanders Rhodes was painting a somewhat different story from his hospital bed. “He’d been in prison before, he knew how the system worked. And so he was claiming that he didn’t do it – we did.”

Rhodes entered a plea bargain on the basis that he had not been involved in the crime and that more than that Sunny had shot the officer twice before Jessie had taken the gun from her, shot the officer for the third time and then killed Irwin. Evidence was hidden by the Prosecution which would have proven that neither Sunny nor Jessie had fired the gun. In Sunny’s case the Prosecution also presented the testimony of a jailhouse informant Brenda Islam:

“They brought in a girl who had been in jail for drug charges, she was afraid, they got her to testify, that I had spoken to her in jail, because they needed something more against me. She later went on national television. She told what happened to her. She told how if they wouldn’t tell the truth, then I have to and I hope that Miss Jacobs will accept my apologies.”

Over twenty years later I asked Sunny for her thoughts on Brenda Islam.

“I feel that she was very heroic. She was desperately afraid even then”

When you say that she was heroic?

“To come forward and say that she had done something like that. Now everybody knows, her neighbours didn’t know about her past and yet she needed to right the wrong and so she put herself out like that and shamed herself in order to make things right. I think that that was quite heroic.”

But I digress. With tainted evidence, a plea bargain the details of which did not come before the Jury both Sunny and Jessie were charged with the murders.

“I really thought that as soon as they took us to court they would figure out that I did not do it and I would be let go. Anybody who knew me for five minutes would know that I would not kill anybody…I was one of those peace and love people. I was a hippy and a vegetarian, how could you possibly think that I could kill someone”.

Both were found guilty. Both were sentenced to the death penalty. The Jury in Sunny’s case recommended a life sentence. But Judge Daniel Futch Jr, himself a former Florida Highway Patrol trooper, who coincidentally just happened to keep a miniature replica of an electric chair on his desk, imposed the death penalty.

To extenuate matters, as if that is possible under the circumstances Sunny was then imprisoned in solitary confinement for the next five years.

“Yes because I was the only woman in the United States at that time who had a sentence of death. That was what they did. They did not feel that they could put me with the men or with the population of women and they thought that people with death sentences have nothing to lose so I would be a threat to the population so I was housed in isolation. Really what amounted to solitary confinement for five years.”

So you spoke to no one?

“Basically not. I was the only one who lived in that building. So the only sound I heard was the sound that I made. It was more like a tomb than a cell, really. I finally got a court order to allow me four hours of interaction with my peers each week to give me..,”

Four hours a week?

“Yes, basically the equivalent of what the men had and as there were a number of men on death row at the time they had each other and I did not have anyone so I had four hours a week and the occasional visit.”

But Sunny refused to wait idly by for her appointment with the executioner. Appeals were lodged and numerous lawyers appeared on her behalf. But you have to ask how she coped with it all.

“I was very angry. And I had lost faith in everything that I had been taught to believe in, including God”

It was clearly a horrendous experience, one with which many people would simply not cope.

“At one point I just made a decision. If I didn’t do something, then they may as well have killed me. I would be dead. Because I was losing my sense of identity and I was made to believe that I was just a whole lump of flesh, who could be locked up in a cage, no name, I had a number and that this was all that there was to it. And I was to just wait in this cell until they decided, that they were going to kill me. First of all, I decided it was not for them to say when I died, for there was a higher authority in the universe and until it was such time for me to die, then my life was still my own and did not belong to them. They could just restrict my movements”

After five years on death row Sunny was released into the general prison population and did not as it happens stop talking for the next three days, until rather ironically she lost her voice. The following year she lost her parents.

“My parents decided that maybe they could go on a vacation for once and not have to come to prison. So they dropped my daughter off with Jessie’s parents and went off for a holiday and unfortunately on the way the plane crashed and they were killed. And that was…that was the most difficult day of my life.”

And what of Jessie?

On the 4th May 1990, after fifteen years of incarceration Jessie Tefaro was executed by the electric chair. It was to be the last time that they used the electric chair in Florida, before rather reassuringly switching to lethal injection.

“It took thirteen and a half minutes for Jesse to die. Three jolts of electricity that lasted fifty five seconds each. Almost a minute. Each. Until finally flames shot out from his head, and smoke came from his ears”

Jessie did not have the benefit of the same legal team which finally assisted in having Sunny exonerated.

“Jessie had a prior record. When somebody has a prior record they are considered no good anyway. You are criminal. So if you did not do this then you will be doing something else. As such the system is comfortable in putting him away. Jessie’s trial lasted four days and then he was convicted and sentenced to death by his jury. My trial took two weeks because I did not have that kind of a record and I was a mother and it took longer.”

Perhaps rather unsurprisingly she continues to have fears and concerns about the debate over capital punishment and the criminal legal system in America.

“That is why they call it capital punishment. If you do not have the capital then you took the punishment. That is the way it is. No rich ends up in death row. The prosecutor’s office selects the cases that will be death cases. They select them. So they select the ones that they are going to win. They select the cases where the person has limited means to defend themselves, maybe they are uneducated, if this piece of evidence is not presented then well.”

And Sunny is in a unique position to evaluate this disease.

“In every one of the cases that I know about, that I have spoken to, between 30 and 40 of the exonerated in America and there are over 115 of them now. In every case there are prosecutorial misconduct; hiding of evidence which could have in the first instance shown their innocence; admission of false evidence; there is the plea bargain; and the jailhouse informant. Those are the elements that are always there. Always. I even met a man from Ireland who was an exonerated and we talked about the cases. And the same method. The face of injustice is the same everywhere.”

In October 1992, Sunny Jacobs was finally released from prison on the basis that she entered a plea in which she did not admit guilt.

“The police escorted me to the door with my little box of belongs. That was all I had after 17 years. And opened the door and handed me my box and told me to have a nice life”

In many ways Sunny seems incredibly reconciled with the hand that fate has dealt her. Hers in not a story of anger, bitterness or even hatred. Hers is one of optimism, of love and of her future, whatever it brings. She has a new husband (himself a former exoneree of the Irish legal system) a loving family and dogs to walk.

“The prize for me is that I have a beautiful life now. That is the prize; otherwise I might be a bitter woman blaming somebody else.”

Sunny’s story is presently being shown, with others in the Exonerated until the 11th June 2006 at the Riverside studios in Hammersmith and tickets can be obtained via the box office on 020 8237 1111 and via the website www.riversidestudios.co.uk.

Comment