Saturday, 16 June 2007
Falling in love with the wrong guy landed Sunny Jacobs on death row, writes Liz Porter.
WHEN "nice Jewish girl" Sunny Jacobs met jailbird Jesse Tafero, she thought she had found a husband for herself — and a father for her six-year-old son. She could never have imagined that this "fascinating" relationship would lead her to a five-year stint on Florida's death row then a further 12 years of a "life" sentence for murder.
It was 1973 — the last days of the flower power era — and Sunny Jacobs' new man was softly spoken, gentle, and a practitioner of zen, meditation and painting. A wilfully naive "peace-and-love vegetarian", Ms Jacobs didn't recognise Tafero's charm as the manipulative criminal charisma of a man who had spent his formative years in a jail cell.
By the time he told her about his juvenile crime record and his seven-year jail sentence for robbery, her son was calling him Dad.
Since winning her release from jail in 1992, Ms Jacobs has toured the world speaking against capital punishment.
She has just published a memoir, Stolen Time, which follows her transformation from "flower child" to convicted killer and documents the long legal battle that led to her exoneration.
Her story, she says, is a cautionary tale of a woman who hitches her wagon to someone else's star.
"When I was in prison, most of the women there were in because of a man," she says.
She spent years in jail "kicking myself for being weak and stupid". "But I can't blame anyone. This was my journey — and it has led me to a place where I can do more good than I would have otherwise."
Within two years of meeting Tafero, she had a daughter by him. But her partner almost missed the birth because he'd been away on one of his many "work" trips, involving shady jobs and even shadier relationships.
"I didn't know, and I didn't want to know," recalls Ms Jacobs, who knew only that her man made money refurbishing guns — which had to be bought under her name, because he was still on parole.
The event that would ruin their lives took place in a rest area beside a busy Florida highway. Ms Jacobs, Tafero and the children were in a car with one of Tafero's new acquaintances — a man called Walter Rhodes.
The group were catching some sleep when they were woken by two policemen who did a routine check and spotted a gun on the floor of the car.
Tafero was soon armlocked by one officer, but Rhodes was still free. Ms Jacobs was holding her children as the second officer waved his gun at them, shouting.
All Ms Jacobs remembers is throwing her body over her children as a blast of gunfire erupted. "I looked up and Jesse was looking as shocked as I felt.
"The policemen were lying in a pool of blood — and you could smell the gunpowder."
Rhodes, gun in hand, was screaming at her to get herself and the children into the police car.
When they were all captured, and she was arrested, Jacobs was sure that her role would soon be downgraded to one of "accessory". Instead, Walter Rhodes, the only person at the scene whose hands tested positive for gun powder residue, told police that his passengers were the killers.
In exchange for two life sentences, he testified at both Ms Jacobs' and Tafero's trials.
A cell-mate of Ms Jacobs also testified to having heard her confess. The jury believed them. Both Tafero and Ms Jacobs were sentenced to death.
In August 1976, Ms Jacobs was ushered into her own private "death row" — a tiny bare cell in a special building on the edge of the Florida Correctional Institution for Women, set aside for the only woman in the state under sentence of death.
Within a year newspapers had published testimony from two of Rhodes' cell-mates, who made statements confirming that Rhodes had confessed to shooting the two policemen.
Ms Jacobs was also able to unearth Rhodes' lie-detector test report, which had been hidden from the defence during the trial. It contradicted Rhodes' trial testimony, indicating that he was unsure whether his co-defendants had done anything at all. Ms Jacobs won a hearing to assess this new evidence, but the judge ruled that it would have made no difference to her case.
Keeping herself sane by meditating, exercising, writing to Jesse and writing down notes that would eventually find their way into her book, Ms Jacobs also filed — and won — a lawsuit demanding visits, TV and walks, the same privileges as men on death row.
In 1981, her death sentence was reduced to life, on the grounds that the judge who imposed it had no reason to overrule the jury, who had only asked for a life sentence.
Finally, in late 1992, after a campaign led by a childhood friend of hers, the Court of Appeal overturned her conviction. Sunny Jacobs walked out of jail as a 45-year-old grandmother, her son Eric having married and fathered a child while she was incarcerated.
She is now working on a second book, which covers her time as "poster child" for the anti-death penalty movement and the story of her reunion with her children.
"They were so very damaged by what happened to me."
Stolen Time (Doubleday $32.95).