Friday, August 24, 2007

Sunny's side of life


TWO YEARS ago I interviewed the most remarkable woman I have met in a long career in newspapers. Her name is Sunny Jacobs and she was a dead woman walking - walking free, that is, after being incarcerated for 17 years, five of them on Death Row in Florida, for two murders she did not commit.

In 1976, Sunny and her common-law husband Jesse Tafero were convicted of the fatal shooting of two Florida police officers, based on the false testimony of the real killer.

The profoundly shocking story of Sunny, then a 28-year-old mother of two, who suffered an isolation from family, friends and society that is beyond recompense, was one of six Death Row tales - all miscarriages of justice - told in the award-winning play, The Exonerated, a scorching indictment of capital punishment, which came to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2005.

Like scores of other innocent men and women wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the US, Sunny was eventually released. That happened in 1992, when the man who had committed the murders, Walter Rhodes, confessed to the double shooting.

What was so unusual about Sunny - one of the most life-enhancing, joyous people I know - was her complete lack of rancour, her ability to find forgiveness in her heart for those who had so shamefully wronged her, especially Rhodes and also the police who managed to lose and then fabricate evidence against her and Tafero, the father of her ten-month-old baby daughter, Tina. It was his misguided, trusting friendship with Rhodes that led to him and Sunny witnessing the killings.

Despite his innocence, Tafero was sent to the electric chair, in 1990, in one of the most botched procedures in the history of the American executions. The chair malfunctioned and the executioner had to pull the switch three times. It took Jesse more than 13 minutes to die - his head actually bursting into flames.

Yet Sunny is a woman without a bitter bone in her body, a woman who survived by meditating and practising yoga while held in the brutal American penal system. There she made many lasting and loving friendships with other prisoners. She once told me: "They took away my name and I became a number. I was in there 17 years; I'm not gonna give them one more minute of my life."

Why didn't she write a book, I asked, after she revealed how she had kept a journal even in prison, written in minute script on scraps of toilet paper, tissues, anything she could salvage. She didn't think she could write, she said, and asked if I would help either edit or ghost-write her story. She e-mailed me six different opening chapters, saying: "I don't know where to begin."

"They came for me in the middle of the night," was the gripping opening sentence of one version, telling how she was taken to the Correctional Institute for Women, in Ocala, to a specially built Death Row because she was the only woman in the state of Florida under sentence of death at the time.

I read those opening words and called her, saying: "Sunny, you are a writer." Now we have proof positive - her moving, redemptive memoir Stolen Time: The Inspiring Story of a Woman Condemned to Death, which is very much all her own work. It opens with that sentence and ends with this courageous woman looking up at the sky over her home in Connemara, where she now lives, and thanking the universe "for this amazing life. I love life. I love my life. Thank you for this gift of life!"

Already embarked on her second book, which she's co-writing with her 67-year-old Irish partner, Peter Pringle, also a Death Row exoneree, she says: "Whenever I get stuck with my writing I think, 'They came for me in the middle of the night' - and what you said to me about being a real writer. Those words have become my mantra."

Tiny and slender, with gamine features and an impish, sunny smile, Sunny (her given name is Sonia) will be 60 tomorrow. On Saturday she returns to Edinburgh - she was here two years ago, sometimes playing herself in The Exonerated, and being garlanded with awards - to appear at the Book Festival.

As she relates in Stolen Time, she was a young hippy mum, with one son, Eric, then nine years old, when she met Tafero. The daughter of nice Jewish middle-class parents, she grew up in New York. Her first marriage to her childhood sweetheart, the father of her son, had already broken down.

She was a totally naïve 24-year-old, "a vegetarian, a flower child into peace and love", when she fell in love with the gentle, soft-spoken Tafero, who it emerged had a police record. They had been together for three years and had their baby daughter, although the relationship was already in trouble, when they made the mistake of taking a lift with Rhodes.

When his car was stopped by two highway patrolmen, Rhodes shot them, kidnapped Sunny, Tafero and the children, then drove off in the police car. He then stole another vehicle, while holding the little family at gunpoint. A high-speed chase with helicopters ensued. But Rhodes knew how to play the system. After they were apprehended and charged, he took a plea bargain, fingering Sunny and Tafero for the murders.

Now a grandmother of three, Sunny spent five years in solitary confinement before her death sentence was commuted to life and she was introduced into the prison population. A decade later, she was finally released. She hasn't received a penny in compensation.

There is something infinitely girlish about Sunny - "you don't grow in prison, you stay the age you were when you went in, because you don't have the experiences on which you grow," she says simply - as well as great dignity.

"Although I'd revisited my story often in The Exonerated, telling it in my own words, those words were like a protective shield for me. So I never had to dig down really deep, into my innermost being. However, whenever I played myself on stage, I was never able to do so without feeling real pain," she confides.

"But writing Stolen Time has been doubly hard for me. I had to live through everything that has happened to me again and again, and although it's some time ago, a lot of it is still very raw. I had never spoken before about what else had happened to me, about how my children suffered, how they were robbed of their childhood with their mom. I had never spoken about my deepest feelings about Jessse's terrible execution, or about what my parents went through." In fact, while she was till in prison, her parents were killed in a plane crash in 1982.

"It was years before I could speak about all of this to anyone, let alone write about it," says Sunny. "I just kept it to myself, like some awful festering thing. I didn't want to go back there. But, you know, people face challenges all the time in their lives - my story is just a bit more dramatic than most, I guess.

"I didn't think people would identify with my story, but they do. I have toured in England and Ireland and Australia speaking about the book and about the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. People have come up to me and said, 'If you can forgive, I can forgive...' and then they tell me their stories. It's a precious thing to be given these stories."

She sees Stolen Time as her chance to give back the ability to find forgiveness. "I was given that gift," she says softly. "I hope I can share that with other people. Many people have told me that they have bought the book to give as a gift to someone they know who is troubled. Isn't that a wonderful thing? To be able to help other people!

"When I'm told that my book is being given as a gift, I always say that that is the spirit in which it was written."

Life has dealt further cruel blows. After Sunny was released from prison, she was mown down in a car accident in LA and still suffers dreadful back pain. She says: "Anger would strike many times, especially when I discovered what tough times my children had had and the difficulties we had coming together again. Sure, I felt angry about what happened to me and what I suffered. But I refused to become a victim.

"I grieve, though. I grieve not only for what I lost but for what will never be. All the possible futures I might have had with my children, all the futures that they will never have, stolen from them too. I could get angry all over again, but you grieve and then you get on with it. If you don't, then depression hits you and that becomes a gnawing sickness inside - and there's no hope for you then. I believe in hope. It really does spring eternal. It's not about where you are but who you are that matters - and what's inside yourself."

• Stolen Time by Sunny Jacobs is published by Doubleday at £14.99. Sunny Jacobs is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 25 August at 7pm.

The death sentence: "After they sentence you to death they tell you exactly how they are going to do it. They say they are going to send 2,200 volts of electricity through your body until you are dead - and then they ask if you've anything to say!"

Survival: "If you sit there, rubbing two sticks together and crying on your sticks, they're never going to make a spark. But if you stop feeling sorry for yourself, just because you are determined not to believe in hopelessness, then a spark happens, and then you keep fanning that wee spark until you've got a flame."

Living in Ireland: "When I first came to Ireland I felt an incredible sense of connection. After my release I didn't belong anywhere, but I felt I belonged here. A place that's about peace; that is more interested in healing than vengeance; where it's constitutionally not allowed to bring back the death penalty; a place that's never gone to war; never colonised another country. This is the perfect place for me."

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