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A.K.A.: "Sunny"
Classification: Murderer?
Characteristics: To avoid arrest
Number of victims: 2 ?
Date of murders: February 20, 1976
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: 1947
Victims profile: Phillip Black (Florida highway patrolman) and Donald Irwin (visiting Canadian constable friend)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Broward County, Florida, USA
Status: Sentenced to death in 1976. Commuted to life in prison in 1981. Conviction overturned in 1992. Released on October 9, 1992

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In 1976, Sunny Jacobs, a white woman, was sentenced to death for killing two police officers in Florida. She spent five years in isolation on Florida’s Death Row and 17 years in a maximum-security prison before her conviction was overturned and she was finally released.

Sunny, her partner Jesse Tafero, and their two children were on vacation when they had car trouble and accepted a ride home from Walter Rhodes, who was on probation.

While they were at a rest stop on the Florida Interstate, two police officers approached the car to do a routine license and registration check and someone in the car shot them. Sunny stated that she was in the back seat of the car shielding her children and did not see what had happened.

The state charged all three adults with the murders. Gunpowder tests showed that Rhodes had fired a weapon; tests of Sunny and Jesse were inconclusive. Rhodes told the prosecutors that Sunny and Jesse had killed the officers and agreed to testify against them in exchange for a life sentence. Rhodes took a polygraph test, which the prosecutor claimed he passed, and this was used as the basis for giving Rhodes the deal.

Sunny had never been in trouble with the law and was shocked when she was charged with murder. She was terrified as she watched the state take away her children and in her first police statement she lied and said she didn’t know the two men, who had picked her and her children up hitchhiking. The prosecutor later used this lie to impeach Sunny’s claim that she had not shot the officers.

At her trial, the prosecutor presented Rhodes’ testimony, Sunny’s lie and the testimony of a jailhouse informant, in prison on drug charges, who claimed that Sunny had told her that she was “glad she had killed those cops,” to convince the jury of Sunny’s guilt.

The jury convicted both Jesse and Sunny. They sentenced Jesse to death but sentenced Sunny to life. However, the judge, a former Florida State Trooper who wore his old patrol hat to work and kept a miniature electric chair that gave off sparks on his desk, overrode the jury’s recommendation and sentenced Sunny to death. On appeal, Sunny’s death sentence was changed back to life imprisonment.

During the next several years, Rhodes recantedhis testimony three times and admitted that he, not Sunny or Jesse, had shot the officers, but this evidence was not made available to Sunny, Jesse, or their lawyer (an underpaid court-appointed attorney). Sunny and Jesse’s convictions continued to stand.

In 1990, Sunny’s childhood friend, filmmaker Micki Dickoff, obtained the results of Rhodes’ polygraph test, which showed that Rhodes had failed the test, but more importantly, that he had given an explanation of the crime that contradicted his trial testimony.

Had the defense had this information, they could have used his inconsistent statements to impeach him. Micki also tracked down the jailhouse informant who admitted that she hadlied about Sunny’s “confession” in order to get a deal in her own case. With this new information Sunny’s conviction was finally reversed. Yet the state of Florida was unwilling to dismiss the case altogether. Sunny wanted to get out of prison as soon as possible and did not want to wait for another trial so she entered into an agreement with the state in which she pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, with the proviso that she could maintain her innocence. On Oct. 9, 1992, she walked out of jail a free woman.

Unfortunately, Jesse never had a chance to prove that his conviction and sentence should have been reversed as well. On May 4, 1990, the state of Florida strapped Jesse into the electric chair. It took three jolts of electricity to kill him. During that time his head caught on fire and two witnesses observed him breathing for several minutes before he died.

Exonerated while co-defendant, convicted on similar evidence, went to the electric chair

Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs and Jesse Joseph Tafero, the father of the younger of her two children, were tried separately, convicted, and sentenced to death by the same judge for the 1976 murders of two law enforcement officers at a rest stop off of Interstate 95 in Broward County, Florida.

Jacobs, Tafero, their 10-month-old daughter, Jacobs’ 6-year-old son, and Walter Norman Rhodes, a friend of Tafero’s, were sleeping in a car that was approached by Phillip Black, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper on routine patrol. With Black was a friend, Donald Irwin, a vacationing Canadian constable.

The murder and kidnaping

After Black learned via radio that Rhodes had a criminal record, gunfire broke out. Black and Irwin were slain, and the group sped off in the Black’s patrol car, driven by Rhodes. At a nearby apartment complex, Rhodes commandeered a car and kidnapped the man in it, Leonard Levinson. They were captured a little later when Rhodes lost control of the car in an attempt to evade a police roadblock.

Jacobs and Tafero maintained from the beginning that Rhodes had shot the officers, and that they had no choice but to go along with him after the shooting. Although there were two eyewitnesses to events surrounding the murders, neither contradicted Jacobs’ and Tafero’s version of what happened. Nor was their version contradicted by physical evidence. Both Tafero and Rhodes had gunpowder residue on their hands, a fact that was consistent with Tafero’s claim that Rhodes handed him the gun after shooting the officers. There was no gunpowder residue on Jacobs’ hands.

The convictions and sentencing

The convictions of Jacobs and Tafero rested primarily on the testimony of Rhodes, who was allowed to plead guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. In Jacobs’ case, the prosecution also presented the testimony of a jailhouse informant, Brenda Isham, who claimed Jacobs had confessed.

The trials were surrounded by massive publicity, which was overwhelmingly prejudicial. All prospective jurors acknowledged knowing about the case, and neither jury was sequestered. The jury in the Jacobs case recommended a life sentence, but Judge M. Daniel Futch, Jr. imposed death, as he had done earlier in the Tafero case. Futch, known as “Maximum Dan,” was a former Florida Highway Patrol trooper who kept a miniature replica of an electric chair on his desk.

The appeals

In 1978, the Florida Supreme Court temporarily relinquished jurisdiction of Jacobs’ case, directing Futch to hold a hearing on whether the Broward County State Attorney had improperly withheld exculpatory evidence during pretrial discovery, including reports stating that Rhodes had told a prison guard that he alone shot the officers and that he had given answers during a polygraph test that were inconsistent with his trial testimony. Jacobs v. State, 357 So. 2d (1978).

Futch found no merit in Jacobs’ claims, saying that Rhodes’ purported statement to the prison guard had been equivocal and that it was impossible to establish precisely what Rhodes had said during the polygraph examination because there was no verbatim transcript of the questions and answers. The results of the polygraph itself, which Rhodes failed, had been properly withheld because, as a matter of law, polygraph results were not discoverable.

Jacobs’ death sentence vacated

In 1981, the Florida Supreme Court agreed that the discovery issues did not warrant a new trial, affirming Jacobs’ conviction. However, the court commuted her sentence to life in prison, holding that Futch had lacked sufficient basis to override the jury’s recommendation of a life sentence. Jacobs v. State, 396 So. 2d 713 (1981).

Tafero was not so lucky. He remained on death row, despite growing doubts about the credibility of prosecution’s star witness. Both Tafero and Jacobs then sought federal writs of habeas corpus. His was denied, Tafero v. Wainwright, 796 F.2d 1314 (1986), but Jacobs won a hearing before a federal magistrate.

During that proceeding, Brenda Isham, the jailhouse informant who had helped send Jacobs to death row a decade earlier, admitted that she had committed perjury at the trial and that Jacobs, in fact, had not confessed. Isham said that, before she agreed to testify, detectives had warned her that she might “make an enemy” of the Broward County State Attorney if she refused to testify against Jacobs.

Tafero’s macabre execution

Jacobs’ petition for a writ of habeas corpus was still pending when, on May 4, 1990, Tafero was put to death in the Florida electric chair. Officials interrupted the execution three times because flames and smoke shot out of his head. During the first interruption, he continued to move and breathe.

Shortly before the execution, filmmaker Micki Dickoff had initiated correspondence with Jacobs. The two had been childhood friends, growing up in Indiana. Dickoff soon became persuaded of Jacobs innocence and obtained affidavits used to supplement the pending habeas corpus petition, which the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit granted in February 1992. Jacobs v. Singletary, 952 F.2d 1282 (1992).

The following October, the Broward County State Attorney offered to release Jacobs if she would enter a plea in which she did not admit guilt. Otherwise she faced a re-trial and possibly another death sentence. She took the plea deal and was released.

Dickoff made a documentary on the case entitled “ In the Blink of an Eye,” which aired as an ABC movie of the week in 1996.

Tafero’s botched execution, and several similarly macabre ones, prompted Florida finally to abandon its electric chair in favor of death by lethal injection in 2000. Although the prosecution continued to maintain that Tafero was guilty, the evidence strongly suggested otherwise.

Case data:

Jurisdiction: Broward County, Florida
Date of crime: February 20, 1976
Date of arrest: February 20, 1976
Charge: First-degree murder of two police officers and kidnaping
Sentence: Death for the murders, life for the kidnaping
Release date: October 9, 1992
Months wrongfully incarcerated: 200
Date of birth: 1947
Age at time of arrest: 28
Defendant race: Caucasian
Race of victim(s): Caucasian
Defendant prior felony record: None
Known factors leading to wrongful conviction: Testimony of man who ultimately confessed to the murder
Did an appellate court ever affirm conviction? Yes
Exonerated by: Confession of actual killer, recantation of jailhouse snitch, intervention of filmmaker
Compensation for wrongful imprisonment: None

The foregoing summary was prepared by Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions.

Extraordinary couple weds after each spent more than 15 years in prison on murder charges before being exonerated

By David Gardner -

November 22, 2011

Sonia Jacobs and Peter Pringle had something unique in common when they tied the knot at a star-studded ceremony in New York.

Both served at least 15 years on Death Row, one in America and one in Ireland, after being convicted of killing police officers..

And both were finally freed after their murder convictions were overturned when they were able to prove they had been unjustly accused.

Their extraordinary story was revealed following the wedding attended by actresses Brooke Shields, Marlo Thomas and Amy Irving.

'We have each lived a nightmare,' said Ms Jacobs, 64, before the ceremony. 'Now it's time to live our fairy tale,' she added.

The couple met in Galway, Ireland, at an Amnesty International conference where Ms Jacobs was speaking out against capital punishment.

Ms Jacobs, known as 'Sunny', was a 28-year-old 'vegetarian hippie' when she was arrested after a 1976 shootout with two policemen in Florida in which the officers were killed.

She was a passenger in the car with her husband, Jesse Tafero, but the driver, Walter Rhodes Junior, struck a deal with prosecutors and blamed the married couple for the shootings. A jailhouse informant also told police that Ms Jacobs confessed she was involved.

It was only after her husband, who had a prior criminal record, was executed in a Florida electric chair in 1990 that the informant recanted and Rhodes admitted he had fired the fatal shots.

She was eventually released in 1992 nearly 17 years following her arrest, after the conviction was overturned on repeal.

When he first heard the mother-of-two's story, Mr Pringle, 74, said he was 'blown away by the horror of what happened to her.

'I knew I had to speak to her,' he told the New York Times.

The Irishman knew better than most what she had gone through. He was sentenced to death for the 1980 murder of two policemen during a bank raid in Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon, said to have been carried out by a radical faction of the Irish Republican Army.

His June 8, 1981, hanging was commuted by the Irish president and the conviction was quashed after evidence emerged showing his 'confession' was written before he'd even been interviewed about the killings. By that time, he'd spent 15 years behind bars.

After their first meeting, the couple teamed up in the US and more than a dozen other countries to give speeches about human rights and campaign for abolishing the death penalty.

'Sure, Peter and I were also physically attracted to one another, but it was deeper than that,' Ms Jacobs told the Times. 'You know what happens to attractive, it becomes wrinkled and fat.'

The couple now lives at Mr Pringle's cottage home in Ireland.

'Sunny teaches yoga, I live on a pension. We have two hens, two ducks and eight goats. We both milk the goats and Sunny makes cheese. It's really a nice, simple life,' said Mr Pringle.

The three actresses at the November 13 wedding all portrayed Ms Jacobs in a hit Broadway play based on her struggle.

Other stars who have played the part include Jill Clayburgh, Mia Farrow, Lynn Redgrave, Susan Sarandon and Kathleen Turner.

'Playing Sunny was so claustrophobic for me,' a tearful Ms. Shields told the Times. 'You felt her powerlessness, this was a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time, the same for Peter.

'But despite everything they have been through, they are not bitter or jaded, they never closed their hearts. They are two people who are at peace with themselves and with the world. They could not have been more fated and meant to be with one another.'

The three actresses held hands as the couple exchanged wedding vows and Irish Claddagh rings in front of a Hindu priest.

Sonia Jacobs

'I had nothing . . . The world I left no longer existed'

By Sydney P. Freedberg © St. Petersburg Times

July 4, 1999

When Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs went to prison for murder in 1976, her son was 9. Her daughter, 10 months old, was still nursing.

When she was freed in 1992, her son was married with a child of his own and her daughter was a 16-year-old stranger.

"Getting back family is the hardest part," says Jacobs, now 51, who teaches yoga and lives in Los Angeles. "They live with embarrassment for so long: You say you didn't (commit the murder), but everyone says you did."

Fresh out of prison, Jacobs made her first non-collect telephone call in 16 years to son Eric, and then headed to North Carolina to see him, his wife and their 4-year-old daughter.

"Grandma, were you lost?" the girl asked when they met.

"Yes," Jacobs replied. "I was."

The reunion with her daughter didn't go as smoothly. Jacobs found her at a high school in Maine, but Tina kept her distance.

The wounds began to heal a few months later. Tina accepted her mother's invitation to attend an anti-death-penalty rally in Pittsburgh. The crowd applauded Jacobs, then cheered non-stop when Tina was introduced. Mother and daughter hugged. Eventually, they began living together, got their first drivers' licenses and climbed mountains. By then, Jacobs and her children had grown accustomed to overcoming obstacles.

In 1976, they were all in the back seat of a green Camaro when Jacobs was arrested with her boyfriend, an ex-con named Jesse Tafero, and his prison pal, Walter Rhodes. They were charged with murdering Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Phillip Black and a visiting Canadian policeman named Donald Irwin a few minutes earlier at an Interstate 95 rest stop.

Rhodes was the only one who tested positive for gunpowder residue. But after he agreed to testify against Jacobs and Tafero, he got a life sentence. They were sentenced to die.

Jacobs spent the next five years in solitary confinement, her vocal cords becoming atrophied because of non-use and denied even her photos of Eric, a son by her first marriage, and Tina, her baby by Tafero. She meditated and practiced yoga. "I figured if people could survive the concentration camps, then surely I could survive this," she says.

In 1981, the Florida Supreme Court commuted Jacobs' sentence to life in prison after her lawyers uncovered a polygraph test suggesting that Rhodes, the prosecution's chief witness, might have lied. The next year, Rhodes recanted, saying he -- not Jacobs or Tafero -- pulled the trigger. (He later changed his story again and again.) The case grew even more wobbly when a jailhouse snitch said she, too, had lied against Jacobs at trial.

Tafero was not so lucky. He remained on death row while his appeals slipped away. In May 1990, he was executed.

By then, a childhood friend of Jacobs, filmmaker Micki Dickoff, had become interested in her case. Using court transcripts, affidavits and old newspaper stories, Dickoff found discrepancies in testimony and put together a color-coded brief for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It was enough to overturn Jacobs' conviction. Rather than risk an acquittal at retrial, the Broward State Attorney's Office offered a plea to second-degree murder in which Jacobs, then 45, did not have to admit guilt. On Oct. 9, 1992, she was released.

She remembers seeing the sun and the moon as she left the Broward County Courthouse.

"I felt like an alien at first," Jacobs says, adding that in prison at least she had stature. "Outside, I had nothing: no money, no place to go. The world I left no longer existed."

For a time, Jacobs had flashbacks and a recurring dream: "I'm madly dashing up and down the corridors trying to find my cell. I couldn't and I was gonna get in trouble. . . . So I ran to the lobby -- it looked like a hotel lobby -- and I asked the desk to call and say I was really here, but I just couldn't find my cell."

The nightmares have ended. The bad feelings come and go. Whenever things get too bad, Jacobs takes long walks along the beach, runs her fingers through the sand and listens to the ocean. "I let the sea take me away," she says.

She lives with her daughter and the mutt she laughingly calls her "grand-dog-ter," and runs a growing yoga business in Los Angeles. She dabbles in filmmaking with Dickoff and in her spare time writes a memoir of death row and life after. She also keeps in touch with old prison friends -- "a little group from the lost planet."

"We're all a little reclusive," Jacobs says of death row survivors. "We all struggle a little to find a life and fit in."



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