Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sunny's deal or no deal injustice

STOLEN TIME by Sunny Jacobs (Doubleday, £14.99)

By JOHN MORTIMER - More by this author »

Last updated at 10:56am on 23rd May 2007

Sunny Jacob's remarkable book, which has also been turned into a successful play, highlights the dangers of injustice in any trial.

There are - particularly in America - the endless and unreasonable delays of the law; there is the cruelty of the death penalty which prevents the effective reopening of any case for fresh evidence to be heard; there is plea bargaining and, again in America, the use of public defenders who may not be very good at their jobs.

In 1976, Sunny Jacobs was a freeliving and loving young woman of 28 with two children. Her partner was a man called Jesse Tafero who did various jobs until, he said, he was going to settle down and paint murals.

Jesse was in Florida staying with a friend called Rhodes, who was to play a major part in the forthcoming tragedy.

Jesse asked Sunny to come down from South Dakota to join them. She did so and they appeared to get on well together, although she said she thought Rhodes was a bit of a creep - a somewhat inadequate word, in view of his subsequent behaviour.

On the night in question, Rhodes, Jesse and Sunny with her two children had stopped in a 'rest area' just off a Florida highway. Their peace was interrupted by the arrival of two state troopers and an altercation followed.

During the course of this, it seems that one of the troopers drew a gun, prompting Jesse to produce a gun of his own from a case which contained several weapons.

Rhodes also took part in the ensuing gunfight, at the end of which the two troopers lay dead, while Rhodes made off with Jesse, Sunny and the children in the police car.

However confused the situation, it was clear that Sunny never fired a single shot but, as a result of that night's events, she was to spend five years on death row, a further 12 years in prison and lose all contact with her children.

The trouble started with the plea bargaining. The deal offered to Rhodes was that he would be spared the death penalty if he gave evidence against Jesse and Sunny.

Rhodes hastened to accept, and his evidence was to influence all further decisions, despite the fact that Rhodes himself denied the truth of it on several occasions. If Sunny had been tried in England, our legal aid system would have provided her with one of the best and most experienced QCs practising at the criminal bar.

In America, however, such defences are undertaken by 'public defenders' who, not to put too fine a point on it, have not succeeded in joining the top ranks of their profession.

Sunny's public defender failed to cross-examine Rhodes or point out that he had denied the truth of his evidence to several witnesses. At the end of the trial Sunny stood and looked up at a judge who was sentencing her to death in the electric chair and specifying the level of the charge which would be used to kill her.

During her years of solitary confinement, Sunny was kept in a cell no wider that the length of her two arms and saw no one.

When, in her case, the death penalty was lifted, she seemed to enjoy a busy social life in prison and she and Jesse wrote touching letters to each other just as though they were true lovers separated because he was away on a business trip.

One day, she was allowed to telephone Jesse to be told: 'They've decided to kill me today.' In a horrible botched execution, flames shot from Jesse's head and there were recharges before he finally died.

Eventually Sunny was awarded a term of imprisonment shorter than the amount of time she had already served and was then free to write this book.

Not everyone who suffers injustice is able to tell the world about it in a memorable and well-written book or have their experiences turned into a play, called The Exonerated, and see their lives re-enacted by such stars as Vanessa Redgrave and Susan Sarandon. The great majority of such victims are mute and unglorified.

What this means is that we should be forever alert to the dangers of plea bargaining, where a prisoner may be prepared to say anything to save his own skin.

And above all, we should be sure that everyone has the right to be defended in the best possible manner without inexcusable delays and inadequate representation.

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