Saturday, April 28, 2007
Flower child on death row
Flower child on death row
In 1976, Sunny Jacobs and her children got caught up in a shootout in
which 2 state troopers were killed. She and her boyfriend were blamed and
sentenced to the electric chair. Here she describes life in solitary and a
16-year battle to prove her innocence
Saturday April 28, 2007
When Sunny Jacobs and Jesse Tafero met in Miami in 1973, she was a flower
child, he a drifter. It was only later Sunny discovered that, as a
juvenile, Jesse had been jailed for 7 years for robbery. The pair went to
live with her parents in North Carolina. Jesse would go on mysterious
trips, see other women. Sunny let it happen: they were soul mates. Mostly,
they were broke. When Sunny became pregnant, Jesse promised to get regular
work. He came up with a plan to buy damaged guns, repair them and sell
them on for a profit. Sunny was to buy them because he had a record. She
felt nervous about this: "Guns were not a 'peace and love' kind of thing.
But it was legal for me to buy them, and it was something he could do."
Despite her misgivings, in February 1976 Sunny found herself - together
with her son, Eric, and Tina, the new baby - in Florida, driving through
the night with Jesse and his unsavoury friend Walter Rhodes. They pulled
into a rest area off the interstate and settled in to sleep until it got
light. The next morning they were woken by two highway patrolmen, who
found a gun on the floor at Rhodes' feet. The trooper confiscated the gun
and ordered both men out of the car. A scuffle began. The troopers
wrestled Jesse over the hood of the police car. Sunny and the children
froze as the trooper waved his gun, shouting, "The next one to move is a
dead motherfucker!" There was a blast of gunfire. The troopers were on the
ground. Rhodes, gun in hand, bundled Sunny and the children into the
police car. Handing the gun to Jesse, he drove to a parking lot, where he
hijacked a Cadillac, again forcing them into the back, this time with the
car's terrified owner. Soon after, they crashed into a police roadblock.
"The car was rocking from the impact of the bullets. Even after the car
stopped, the barrage of bullets continued and I wondered if they didn't
know there were hostages in the car." Rhodes was taken to a waiting
ambulance with a gunshot wound. Jesse, gun still stuck in the waist-band
of his trousers, was handcuffed and, instead of being rescued, Sunny and
the kids were taken to the police station. All were given gunshot tests.
The only one who had fired a gun - the tests showed - was Rhodes.
Jesse's trial came first, in May 1976. It lasted 4 days. Rhodes testified
against him. This, coupled with a complete lack of any presentation of
defence, meant Jesse was convicted and sentenced to death in short order.
But I was a mother, a hippy and a vegetarian. Surely they couldn't believe
that I would kill anyone? We would go to court and I would tell them and
it would be OK.
At my trial, in July 1976, Rhodes was the state's key witness. He agreed
to accept three life sentences to avoid the electric chair in exchange for
his testimony in court against Jesse and me. My attorney put up a very
poor defence to the charges against me. And, in the second week of the
trial, the prosecution announced another witness: Brenda Isham. I had no
idea who she was. It turned out that she had been in the same holding cell
as me for one night when she was brought in on drugs charges. She was
claiming that I had told her that I did it and I was glad and would do it
again. I had never spoken to her. The jury deliberated for nine hours
before reaching their verdict. One by one they stood and affirmed their
decision. "Guilty." "Guilty." "Guilty." Twelve of them. Guilty, on two
counts of murder and one of kidnapping.
They came for me early on the day I was to be sentenced. I had no idea
what they would do with me. Neither did my attorney. Before we went into
court he handed me an envelope. "To Sunny, With Love." It was from Jesse!
Sunny, I love you with all my heart and soul. Keep your strength and
spirit my precious woman, I love you more each day. I'm with you as
always. Forever you and me.
Love and kisses, Jesse
There was a Polaroid photograph of Jesse inside with "I Love You" written
across the white part at the bottom. He had his right hand raised in a
fist with the thumbs-up sign. He was smiling, sending me strength with his
The jury recommended life. The judge still had the final say. Once again,
the bailiff called my name and I rose.
As the judge's deep voice began to fill the room, I pressed the photograph
to my chest.
"...and you shall be sentenced to die in the electric chair by having a
current of 2,200 volts pass through your body until you shall be
determined to be dead."
No one knew what death row would be like for me, because I was the only
woman in the state of Florida under a sentence of death. Since there was
no death row for women, I hoped they would take me to the men's death row,
where Jesse was. But that wasn't to be. We arrived at the women's prison
in Ocala in the early hours of the morning.
The first step in the process of commitment was to be fingerprinted and
have my mugshots taken by a dried-up-looking old man who turned out to be
one of the women inmates. From that moment on, I would be known as Female
I was issued with white cotton pyjamas, underpants and bras, a towel,
washcloth and rubber shower shoes. The underpants were a size too large.
The inmate said she would try to do better next week. I didn't really
care. I didn't expect to be there very long.
A guard escorted me past the dormitories and over a hill. There was only
one building on the other side: the isolation wing. Tightly girdled by two
separate fences topped with massive tangles of barbed wire, it was
separated from the rest of the compound by 50 yards of empty space.
Inside, it was a dungeon. We made our way to the very last cell at the end
of the corridor. She opened it with a large key on a large ring full of
keys. There were no words spoken. What would one say that could possibly
suit the occasion? "Enjoy your stay! Welcome to death row!"
Day 1, death row, August 20 1976
I move my eyes, slowly, seeking the comfort of something familiar. To my
left is a bed - a rusted metal skeleton bolted to the wall, covered by a
thin, striped mattress. I can reach out and touch both walls by rocking
slightly to each side. I noticed a window in the wall above the bed. I had
to kneel on the bed to look through it. A cruel joke - the window looks
out on to another wall.
A wailing fills the space. My body starts to rock forward and back and the
sound builds into a moan that cannot be contained. I sit at its centre,
feeling myself falling away into oblivion.
Taking small steps, placing one foot directly in front of the other, I
paced off the length of the concrete floor. Six steps. It was six steps
from the door to the toilet. I turned back towards the door again. 6
steps. Back and forth - to the door, to the toilet - I began to pace,
hands balled into fists.
My children! When will I see them? How long will it take for the court to
find out they made a mistake?
The daily routine: breakfast at some ungodly hour - footsteps, tray slides
in through slot in door. Footsteps. Tray is taken away. Lunch and dinner
come and go in the same way, and then the long period that I call night.
And I pace. And I cry. And I beg and argue and rationalise with the God I
am not sure exists. The walls get closer together and threaten to smother
me in my own fear and anger.
Happy birthday to me. I am 29 years old.
My hair begins to come out when I comb it. I save it and put it in a piece
of paper. Maybe I could have a wig made from it later on. Crazy thing to
think about, vanity. But in some cases it is good because it keeps your
mind focused on your pride in living and on the future.
The precious first letter from my beloved Jesse since he was sent to death
row has arrived! It has taken four months to get approved.
September 21 1976
My Dearest Sunny,
I love you. As you can see I finally can write to you. I've been worried
about you. Boy, I love you Mama; I'm just sitting here on my bunk smiling,
thinking about you. We're some pair. It's you and me forever honey. I
write Eric and Christina every week.
I presume you're in a one-man cell like me, can you see outside? I hear
you can't smoke, what's the story? ...We are allowed AM/FM radios. I just
got the Sony Matrix so I can do what we call 'Juke-in,' short for 'Juke
boxing,' I hope you can have one. Let me know and I'll get you one. Music
makes a difference. If you have any kind of problems, you make sure to let
me know. You are my main concern. Put your family and mom on your visiting
list, no one else, understand? I'll explain at another time. I'll be in
close touch. I'll be writing probably every day. You do the same.
You're my woman forever. Know in your heart that we are going to make it
out alright. I love you with all my heart, Sunny, my beautiful wife. I'll
close for tonight with thoughts of you.
I created a routine for myself. It helped to overcome the feeling of being
detached, of free-floating in the absence of a time structure. I would
sleep until the smell and sounds of breakfast alerted my senses. Bursting
awake, I would quickly wash my face and smooth my hair and wait by the
door with my face pressed sideways to the 5in x 5in square of safety glass
criss-crossed with wire, waiting for the first sighting of the breakfast
cart and the guard. Sometimes they would let it sit there in the office
for a long time, so it was cold and congealed. I did sit-ups and push-ups
and squats. Then I would run in place on my blanket folded in quarters.
After exercise, I would eat and then go back to sleep. Yoga filled the
next part of my day. Before and after yoga, I would pray and meditate.
Lunch was another marker in the passage of timelessness. Then I would
write or draw or do maths problems in my head or think about my children,
Jesse, my family, and cry. I tried to familiarise myself with the language
of the law books but I couldn't really concentrate on what they were
What's taking so long? When will I receive some news?
My Dearest Jesse
I'm grateful for this pen and paper puny way of telling you over and over
again how I feel, but I want to crumple it up and run and tell you I love
you. The children feel it too. Tina is still little and is all surrounded
with love but Eric is older and has to deal with the hardest parts now
when we're not there. I am desperate to be with him... I think my family
will be able to visit soon!
I love you.
Orf and Hysmith. Two prisoners who felt they couldn't just keep quiet
after Rhodes confessed to them. They said, in their sworn statements as
reported in the media, that Rhodes said he shot the policemen and had to
save himself by lying. They quoted Mr Orf as saying that Rhodes told him,
"Hey, man, I had to, no way in the world I thought they would get the
chair. If I had of [thought that], I would not have done it, but I had to
keep from getting the chair myself."
Thank you, Great Spirit! Thank you, Universe! I am going home to my
children! Jesse and I will be together again soon!
Orf and Hysmith were not the only ones who heard Rhodes's statement that
day. A guard said that he heard Rhodes bragging about how he killed the
policemen. But the officer's statement was not revealed until years later.
Our letters were full of planning and dreaming and believing. Our families
were overjoyed. A hearing would surely follow and we would be released.
But no hearing took place. The prosecutor in our case, Michael Satz, was
now district attorney. He sent his assistant from the trial, Walter
LaGraves, and Rhodes's former defence attorney, Ralph Ray, who was now a
prosecutor working for Satz, to talk to Rhodes. Rhodes took back his
confession, saying he "didn't really mean it". It was a devastating
I had been trying to understand the legal process that had been used to
put us here, and had requested a copy of the PSI report used for
sentencing. Normally one did not see a pre-sentencing investigation, even
though it is part of the public record.
I found a paper stamped CONFIDENTIAL which turned out to be Rhodes's
polygraph test report. It should have been given to the defence before the
trial to impeach his testimony. At the trial he said that I either handed
a gun to Jesse or fired it and then handed it to Jesse, but in the
polygraph report they said he wasn't sure if I had done anything at all!
My appeals attorney had no knowledge of it, but the prosecutor, now DA,
made light of it, saying it would not have made any difference to the
March 28 1977
My Dearest Jesse,
It's been pretty chilly at night lately. I hope you are warm enough since
it's damp down there. I guess it's like here - the ground is right under
the floor and with the cold and cement, it does get a bit damp but I guess
I'm used to it and I wear my 'flip flops' and a sweatshirt and socks when
it's cold. I'm okay - very adaptable. I hope you have hot dreams and I
hope I'm what heats them up - and you. Good night with all my love and
kisses and hugs and licks and small bites and little noises.
Love and kisses, Sunny
After filing a civil suit about my conditions, I was moved to another cell
in the hospital wing. A converted storage cupboard, it was better because
I could now see other people even if I couldn't talk to them. But I wasn't
there for long. One night, about 10, the door opened and the
superintendent walked in, wearing a casual shirt and a pair of shorts.
"Get it all, Jacobs. You're being transported tonight."
August 1977, Broward Correctional Institution
BCI is located at the edge of the Everglades swampland. There are no
street lights and the glow from the grid of greenish crime lights that
surround it make it look like a UFO. The room was far larger than the
other two cells I had occupied in my life on death row. And I had my own
washing facilities - a toilet and a shower in a separate bathroom! The
walls were the usual white, the door a heavy metal affair, like the one in
my first cell, but this one didn't have a slot in it for the food tray. I
guessed they would have to open the cage to feed the lions here.
Jesse's attorneys were preparing for a hearing on his appeal. And then, at
last, there was the hearing on new evidence in my case from the 1977 PSI
It was held in the Broward County courthouse. I had not seen Jesse in
three years. They brought him through the side door. He was wearing his
prison uniform, handcuffed and shackled. I soaked up the sight of him. My
Jesse! But he looked so aggravated - not tough-guy aggravated but
bone-deep aggravated. I could see that he had been working out by the way
his arms and chest filled out his uniform. But his face was drawn and
tight. My heart was so full I felt I would cry. After they got him settled
in a chair along the side wall, he smiled and winked at me and our eyes
locked. It was the last time Jesse and I would ever see each other.
Ultimately, the judge said it didn't make any difference that Rhodes said
he wasn't really sure I had done anything. I couldn't imagine how it
didn't make a difference since it was quite the opposite of his trial
testimony. Rhodes had confessed to the murders twice more since the Orf
and Hysmith incident. Each time, the district attorney's chief
investigator would make the trip to visit Rhodes, and each time Rhodes
would return to his original testimony. So, even though Rhodes had
confessed twice and had contradicted his trial testimony during a
polygraph interview, the undeniable proof of his guilt, and our innocence,
would remain obscured for another 14 years.
Footsteps. More than one person... the tapping of women's heels. I am up
on tippy toes, face pressed to window, turning away to exhale so as not to
fog up my view. There they are! It is Mrs V, the superintendent, and 2
men. One is a guard. The other is wearing a dark business suit. He is
definitely official. He must be from Tallahassee, the state capital, and
main office of the Department of Corrections. Maybe an inspector. Why are
they coming to see me? I haven't sent in any complaints lately. Must be
important for Mrs V to come herself.
"Sonia, there has been some news concerning your appeal." All ears and
eyes, my total attention is fixed on the words as I watch them tumble in
slow motion from her mouth. They are like bubbles that pop in the air
My sentence had been changed from death to life, but the conviction
remained. This meant that I would no longer have to spend the rest of my
life in isolation. The sword of impending execution would be removed from
over my head, but it also meant I would not be going home.
"The state has 14 days in which to appeal the court's decision to change
your sentence," Mrs Villacorta went on to say. "After that, you will be
moved to Reception and Orientation."
My parents are ecstatic. My dad had been at the Florida Supreme Court
hearing. He said that the panel of judges was appalled when my attorney
said he wasn't prepared to address the fact that his client could be
facing a death sentence. They wanted to know if he was court-appointed or
privately retained in order to ascertain the state's responsibility for
such an unacceptable lack of preparation. So now we could proceed to the
next step in the process. Five years to get to the first appeal. Five
years of isolation. Five years.
I had a major transition to make. After the first three days in R&O, I
lost my voice. I wasn't used to talking and my vocal cords had atrophied.
It came back after a few days, but it was never the same. I had a
different voice - one that sounded like my mother's voice, deeper and more
Another Christmas season passed and another year began with no change in
our situation. I didn't count the days and months, but I did keep track of
the years. I was 27 when this began and I was now 38 years old. Eric was
now 20 and Tina was an 11-year-old. I didn't see much of either of them
now with both of them living so far away.
In 1987, a brilliant young attorney called John Evans was working on my
case and tracked down Brenda Isham. She had made a good, clean life for
herself in Wyoming. Brenda was so filled with remorse that she was willing
to make a taped statement, give a deposition to a court reporter, anything
to make up for what she had done. The only thing she wouldn't do was
return to Florida to testify in court.
We were stuck - until one day Brenda called to say that she would come to
Florida. She told my lawyers that some men had shown up at her ailing
father's house to tell him that he should convince his daughter not to get
involved any further in my case on my behalf. That was what changed her
So Brenda Isham came to testify in federal court. I had all my hopes up,
although I knew from past experience that hope was dangerous. After the
usual fanfare, the judge called for the witness to be brought into the
courtroom. Brenda took the stand and cried the whole time, telling the
judge how and why she had lied. She literally shrank back into her chair
when the former prosecutor, now DA, approached her. And then, to my horror
and everyone's astonishment, she had a heart attack, right there on the
witness stand. The judge called for a nurse. The nurse called for an
ambulance. The judge called for a recess. The paramedics came and took
Brenda away, and the hearing was over.
In mid-April 1990, Jesse's death warrant was signed. His execution was
scheduled for May 5, only 3 weeks away! The wheels went into motion on all
sides - plans for last-minute appeals, plans to safeguard the children. I
was trying to keep my thoughts positive.
Jesse's letters are short. I understand. He does not want them to know
what he is thinking or feeling. His lawyers, a coalition of pro bono
attorneys, were filing appeal after appeal. They were all denied.
The Pope in Rome had issued a plea for Jesse's life. The bishop in
northern Florida had issued his own plea. The media was hot on the story.
There were protesters and revellers. It was a circus. Jesse's death was
reported in the local newspapers:
3 JOLTS USED TO EXECUTE KILLER
Saturday May 5 1990. The execution of Jesse Tafero in the big chair at
Florida state prison went awry Friday morning. Flames and smoke rose from
his head as the headset conducting the killer current to his body caught
Tafero's execution coincided with the first march of the first national
movement against the death penalty, and national pilgrimage for the
abolition of the death penalty. Members gathered outside the prison as it
lay shrouded in fog early Friday.
'No execution is normal,' said Sister Helen Prejean of New Orleans, who
led a march to Atlanta today. Prejean stood in a field opposite the prison
with a small group of protesters, holding a vigil as the execution
Tafero, his brown eyes piercing and angry, had these last words before the
executioners fixed the faulty headset to his skull: 'Well, I'd like to say
that the death penalty, as applied in the States, is very arbitrary and
capricious. I think it's very unfair. I think it's time that everyone
wakes up to see that the same laws that can go against crime can go
against you tomorrow.'
He never received my April 26 letter. It was returned to me marked
Just before the execution, I received a letter from my childhood friend
Micki, who now produced and directed documentary films. It felt good to
reconnect to an older, purer part of my past. Over a series of letters and
visits, we renewed our friendship. As Micki's visits continued in late
1990, we were fast approaching the time to submit my federal habeas
corpus. It was, for all practical purposes, my last chance. If we did not
prevail on it, I would most likely spend the rest of my life in prison.
Habeas corpus is only for the purpose of arguing the legal issues - the
process, not the facts. It is not permitted to present new evidence in a
habeas corpus. You couldn't even argue innocence based on new facts any
more, because technically the time for that had passed.
I tried to explain to Micki how the recantations of Walter Rhodes and the
confession of perjury by Brenda Isham could be deemed "harmless error".
She determined to find a way to help. After spending weeks reading about
my case and talking to my attorneys, she came up with a brilliant visual
way to present all the facts - including the independent eyewitness
testimony of two truck drivers, one of whose statements had not been
brought out at trial - making it clear that neither Jesse nor I could have
done the shooting. The brilliance of Micki's solution was that the
presentation of new facts was so inextricably intertwined in the legal
arguments that it couldn't be rejected as untimely new evidence.
In February 1992, with only one dissenting vote, the federal appeals court
overturned my case. This time, both the sentence and my convictions were
quashed. This was it! We had won! I was a free woman again! But not
exactly. You see, the state had the right to appeal. And they did. The
state lost their appeal to reinstate my sentence and conviction. But they
still had the right to take me back to trial again, even though there was
hardly any basis left on which to do so. After so much time, it would be
difficult to locate witnesses, and difficult for either side to present
their case properly. From a political perspective, they could not and
would not concede that a mistake had been made. If that were the case, I
would be entitled to sue the state of Florida for compensation.
Two bail applications were refused. At the third, Jos Quion, who would
lead the defence team should there be a new trial, openly accused Michael
Satz, now Broward state attorney, of "blatant conflict of interest". We
filed a motion asking the judge to remove Satz's office from any new
trial, and appoint outside prosecutors. Bail was again denied, but a new
hearing did begin to have Satz removed from my case. After several days in
court, Jos introduced what came to be the coup de grce - the previously
undisclosed statement of a guard who had heard Walter Rhodes's confession.
It had been buried for 10 years and had only recently been delivered up in
a box of papers. Micki had found it. If Jesse's attorneys had been made
aware of the guard's statement, they could have used it to save his life.
Satz denied any prior knowledge of the guard's statement, but he did offer
a deal. If I said that Rhodes didn't do anything, then I would be freed
that night. I knew that they might not make another offer, and a new trial
could take a long time, but I wouldn't lie. If I said Rhodes didn't do it,
it would be like saying Jesse did. I told them to take me back to prison.
The next day, Friday, I went to work as usual. I did my work as usual. But
I was waiting for a sign I had been praying for, a call, a message. None
came. I was in the bosses' office showing my supervisors how to use a
program on the new computer system. It was almost 4pm. I would soon be
recalled to my cell. The phone rang. The supervisor answered.
"Sonia, you're going out to court."
I could feel myself hyperventilating. No one gets called to court at 4pm
on a Friday unless they are being released, because the jails don't like
to keep us "convicts" over the weekend.
As I turn the corner, I see the van waiting. I begin to run. There are
inmates lining the walkway. The word has spread and they are coming out to
say goodbye. Someone is going home. People gather to participate in the
miracle. They are clapping, and some are crying, as we pass by.
We reach the rear gate. 2 uniformed officers from the Broward Sheriff's
Office are waiting for me.
We are on the way. I can see the prison through the dust behind the van. I
know I will not see it again.
We go up to the courtroom. My attorneys are there and explain that they
have offered me a plea of convenience. What this means is that I am not
allowed to say anything during the proceeding. Also, I have to allow them
to read an adjudication of guilt of a lesser degree into the record to
prevent me from being able to sue for false imprisonment later. In effect,
I am to sit there in silence while they cover their arses. It's all about
money and not taking responsibility. I will end up as a convicted felon
with a charge of second degree still on the books. But I will be a free
woman. Clean break. Free to go. I could be with my children again. I could
be with my granddaughter. I would be free.
I am thinking about it. I am 45 years old. I am a grandmother. I am tired
We enter the courtroom and this time I really am set free! I am led to the
front of the courtroom, feeling like a helium balloon, grinning my face
Freedom is right on the other side of the glass doors in front of me. I
(source: The Guardian----Sunny Jacobs, 2007. This is an edited extract
from Stolen Time: One Woman's Inspiring Story As An Innocent Condemned To
Death, by Sunny Jacobs, to be published next week in hardback by Doubleday
at 14.99. To order a copy for 13.99, including UK mainland p&p, go to
guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875.