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Jesse Joseph TAFERO





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: To avoid arrest
Number of victims: 2
Date of murder: February 20, 1976
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: October 12, 1945
Victim profile: Phillip Black (Florida highway patrolman) and Donald Irwin (visiting Canadian constable friend)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Broward County, Florida, USA
Status: Executed by electrocution in Florida on May 4, 1990

Florida Supreme Court


opinion 49535

opinion 70422


opinion 71946

opinion 75909


Florida Parole & Probation Commission


transcript of proceedings


Jesse Joseph Tafero (October 12, 1946 - May 4, 1990), was executed in the state of Florida for the murders of Phillip Black and Donald Irwin.

The crime, trial, and execution

On the morning of February 20, 1976, Florida highway patrolman Phillip Black and visiting Canadian constable friend Donald Irwin approached a car parked at a rest stop for a routine check. Tafero, Sonia Jacobs, their two children (ages 9 years, and 10 months), and Walter Rhodes were found asleep inside.

Black saw a gun lying on the floor inside the car. He woke the occupants and had first Rhodes then Tafero come out of the car. Then, both Black and the Irwin were shot by Rhodes and Rhodes forced Jacobs, Tafero, and their children into the police car, fleeing the scene. They kidnapped a man and stole his car. All three were arrested after being caught in a roadblock.

In order to receive a lesser charge himself, at their trial, Rhodes (who had been the only one to test positive for gunpowder residue) testified that Tafero and Jacobs were solely responsible for the murder. Tafero and Jacobs were charged, tried, and wrongly convicted with capital murder. Tafero and Jacobs were sentenced to death while Rhodes was sentenced to a life sentence, from which he was released early for good behavior.

Tafero and Jacobs children were placed in the care of Jacobs' parents until her parents were killed in a plane crash in 1982. The children were then separated, live with relatives and family friends, where they grew to be strangers to Tafero and Jacobs.

Tafero and Jacobs continued their relationship through letters while serving time in the prison. They learned some Japanese and that way were able to continue their sex life without bringing the attention of the guards who read their mail.

Circa 1982, Rhodes recanted his previous statement and confessed that it was he, NOT Tafero or Jacobs, that had pulled the trigger and killed the two police men. This and other evidence prompted courts to commute Jacobs' sentence to life in prison but Tafero was not granted the same.

In May of 1990, eight years after Rhodes confessed that Tafero was innocent, the state of Florida killed Jesse Tafero. During Tafero's execution, the electric chair he was executed in, Old Sparky, malfunctioned, causing six-inch flames to shoot out of his head. Three jolts of electricity were required to pronounce Tafero dead. It took him 13 1/2 minutes to die.


Tafero's was the execution heard round the world because of it's unusually brutal circumstances. Death penalty opponents cite Tafero's execution as particularly cruel, saying it violated Tafero's right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

The eleventh U.S. Circuit Court found evidence compelling enough to overturn the conviction of co-defendant Sonia Jacobs. She was released after accepting a plea bargain. After her release, she reaffirmed her innocence.

Jacobs reunited with her children and became outspoken against the death penalty. She remarried and now teaches yoga.




On May 4, 1990, the State of Florida, with the acquiescence of the federal government, executed Jesse J. Tafero in the electric chair. The state and federal governments failed to ensure Tafero's right to a fair and impartial trial and right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. The unfair trial resulted in Tafero's execution.


Early on the morning of February 20, 1976, a Florida highway patrolman and his friend, a visiting Canadian constable, approached a car parked at a rest stop for a routine check.

Jesse Tafero, Sonia Jacobs, their two children, and Walter Rhodes, a prison friend of Tafero's, were asleep in the car. Allegedly, the patrolman saw a gun on the floor of the car. He woke the occupants and had Rhodes and then Tafero get out of the car. At some point after that, both the patrolman and the constable were shot.

After fleeing the scene in the patrolman's car, and then dumping the car, kidnapping a man, and stealing his car, the three were caught at a roadblock.

Rhodes, Tafero, and Jacobs were all arrested. Rhodes turned state's evidence in exchange for a plea to a lesser charge. Tafero and Jacobs were tried and convicted of capital murder.

Salient Issues

  • Jesse Tafero was convicted and sentenced to death largely on the testimony of one co-defendant, Walter Rhodes, who named Tafero as the shooter.

  • In exchange for his testimony, Rhodes was allowed to plead guilty to second-degree murder, and avoid the death penalty.

  • The prosecutor justified Rhodes's plea bargain based on a polygraph test he alleged Rhodes had passed.

  • The summary of Rhodes's polygraph test was withheld from the defense by the state.

  • In a legal challenge by Tafero's other co-defendant, Sonia Jacobs, a federal appeals court found that withholding the polygraph test was unconstitutional.

  • Rhodes recanted his testimony on three separate occasions in 1977, 1979, and 1982 stating that he, not Tafero, shot the policemen. Ultimately, Rhodes reverted to his original testimony.

  • Gunpowder tests were performed by the state. A federal appeals court confirmed that the test results indicated that Rhodes was the only one to have fired a gun.

  • At both his trial and his sentencing hearing, Tafero's lawyer failed to call or question any witnesses on Tafero's behalf.

  • Two eyewitnesses, who were testifying for the state, said that while the shots were being fired, one officer was holding Tafero over the hood of the car.

  • The judge was a former highway patrolman, who had only retired from the police force three years prior to the trial. He wore his police hat to work as a judge. He did not allow Tafero to call witnesses and would not allow him hearings on this decision.

  • The jury in the trial was un-sequestered.

  • Tafero's other co-defendant, Sonia Jacobs, was likewise convicted of capital murder on the basis of Rhodes's testimony. After Tafero's execution, evidence that had been suppressed by the state, which pointed to both Jacobs's and Tafero's innocence, was discovered. Jacobs's conviction was eventually overturned.

  • Tafero's court-appointed trial lawyer was subsequently convicted of bribing a jury and sent to prison.


Jesse Tafero was convicted largely on the basis of co-defendant Walter Rhodes's testimony that Tafero had shot both officers. A jailhouse informant also testified against Tafero. Rhodes was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for his testimony against his two co-defendants, Tafero and Jacobs, who were each tried separately.

The prosecutor maintained that Rhodes had passed a polygraph test and thus a plea bargain was justified. Evidence discovered after the trial showed that Rhodes had not passed the polygraph test and that the state had suppressed the results of the test, which contained statements contradicting Rhodes's trial testimony.

Rhodes recanted his testimony on three separate occasions in 1977, 1979 and 1982 stating that he, not Tafero, shot the policemen. Ultimately, Rhodes reverted to his original testimony. A statement from a prison guard corroborating Rhodes' recantations was also suppressed and found years later.

Ballistic tests indicated that one gun shot both policemen. Ballistic tests also showed that Rhodes definitely had fired a gun and that Tafero might have fired a gun or might have simply handled a gun after it was fired. The later scenario corroborated Tafero's account that Rhodes had shot the policemen and then handed Tafero the gun so that he could drive the car. Rhodes was driving the car when it was finally stopped during a shoot-out at a police roadblock.

At the trial, one eyewitness testified that he saw a man in brown, Tafero, spread eagle on the hood of the police car when the shots were fired. A second eyewitness testified that he saw a man in blue, Rhodes, move from the front of the car to the rear just before the shooting. Neither witness could identify which man was the shooter.


Tafero's conviction was affirmed on June 11, 1981. A motion for error coram nobis failed in 1983. In 1988, the Florida Supreme Court denied state habeas relief. Other state appeals were also denied in 1984, 1987, and 1990. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case twice, in 1986 and 1989, and affirmed the conviction.

In Sonia Jacobs' 1992 appeal, evidence of the suppressed polygraph test, the prison guard's suppressed statement, and a physical re-creation of the crime scene presented a convincing scenario that Rhodes was the sole shooter. The new evidence resulted in the reversal of Jacobs' conviction. Had the evidence been found prior to Tafero's execution, it is highly probable that his conviction would have been likewise overturned.


Jesse Tafero was executed in Florida's electric chair. During the execution, Tafero's head seemed to catch on fire. Flames and smoke were seen shooting out of his head, causing the state to interrupt the electric current three times. Witnesses to the execution claimed that Tafero continued to breathe and move after the first charge was interrupted. The state's execution was particularly cruel, and it served as a final violation of Tafero's right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.


Jesse J. Tafero was executed despite evidence of his innocence that was finally heard by a United States court, but only after Tafero was executed. The Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court found evidence compelling enough to overturn the conviction of Tafero's co-defendant, Sonia Jacobs a conviction based almost entirely on the evidence used to convict Tafero. Jacobs later accepted a plea bargain and was released. Immediately upon release, she reaffirmed her innocence. Both state and federal courts failed to protect Tafero's right to a fair trial. The state's suppression of evidence that was favorable to Tafero's defense and that corroborated his claim of innocence violated Tafero's constitutional and international human rights. The initial violation was compounded by the failure of state and federal courts to act to protect Tafero's rights to a fair trial and his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, a right violated in the course of his execution.

Name/DOC # 020285
Address Florida State Prison
Date of birth October 12, 1945
Race White
Date of crime February 20, 1976
Age at time of crime 29
Date sentenced May 20, 1976
Victims Highway Patrolman Phillip Black & Canadian Constable Donald Irwin
Race of victims White
Relationship to defendant No relationship
Summary of facts as alleged by state See attached summary
County where tried Broward County Florida
Trial judge Judge Daniel Futch

Futch's nickname was "Maximum Dan" he displayed a miniature electric chair on his desk

Futch was a former highway patrolman.

Trial attorney Robert McCain

After Tafero's trial, McCain was disbarred. He was convicted of obstruction of justice for bribing a witness in another case and for narcotics conspiracy.

Prosecutors Michael Satz

Satz was an assistant DA at the time of the trial

A day after securing death penalty convictions against Tafero and his co-defendant Sonia Jacobs, Satz announced he was running for DA. Elected largely on this high profile case.

Satz easily won the election and has been State's Attorney in Broward County since 1976.

In November 2000, for the first time in Satz's career, someone is running against him.
Trial by Jury
Race of jurors White
Convicted of First Degree Murder/Felony Murder

Theory was that they killed the police so they could steal the trooper's gun and trooper's car for getaway.

It is unclear whether Tafero was convicted on felony murder theory or because jury believed he was the triggerman.
Confession No
Accomplice testimony Yes.

The co-defendant, Walter Norman Rhodes, took a plea bargain for 2nd Degree Murder in exchange for his testimony against Jesse Tafero and Sonia Jacobs.

Eyewitness testimony Two truck drivers watched the drama unfold from a distance of 150 to 200 feet away. ( Pierce Hyman and Robert McKenzie.) Neither truck driver could say who the shooter was, but both said in their first statements to the police that Tafero was pinned over the hood of the car during all the shots. Hyman's story changed slightly only after several discussions with the police. He then said Tafero might have gotten up off the hood of the car before the shooting stopped, but almost when it was over. Both truck drivers saw slightly different things, the most significant being where co-defendant Walter Rhodes was standing. Hyman said Rhodes was always standing in front of the car. McKenzie said Rhodes moved to the rear of the car as the shots were fired. McKenzie's statement was very significant because the shooter, according to ballistics evidence, had to have shot from the rear of the car. The reason Hyman thought Rhodes never moved from the front of the car is because McKenzie moved his truck toward the exit blocking Hyman's view of the scene at the exact time Rhodes moved to the back of the car. In Rhodes' 1982 recantation, he swore under oath he moved from the front to the back of the car and fired at the two cops.
Forensic testimony When Tafero was apprehended, he had the murder weapon in his possession.

Ballistics proved this gun killed both police officers.

Rhodes had a matching 9mm gun. A bullet hole in the windshield post of the trooper's car determined that the shooter was at the rear of the Camaro when firing.

Gun powder tests done on Walter Rhodes, Jesse Tafero and Sonia Jacobs resulted in the following findings:

  • Walter Rhodes gunpowder residue found consistent with "having discharged a weapon."
  • Jesse Tafero gunpowder residue found consistent with "handling an unclean or recently discharged weapon, or possibly discharging a weapon."
  • Sonia Jacobs residue found consistent with "having handled an unclean or recently discharged weapon." Jacobs's 9 year old son had the same result as she.
Jailhouse snitch Ellis Marlowe Haskew testified at trial that he heard Tafero say at a New Year's Eve party 5 weeks before the murders that he would never go back to prison, and that he owned a lot of guns.

The fact that Haskew was at that time testifying in many federal drug cases was not disclosed; the fact that Haskew's lawyer's fees were paid by the Florida Department of Criminal Law Enforcement was not disclosed.

When this snitch was named only on the first day of trial, Defense counsel asked for a continuance to investigate Haskew's background and claims but Judge Futch denied request.

Defense counsel only had 30 minutes to interview snitch before his testimony.

In Sonia Jacobs' trial the DA also used a jailhouse snitch who testified that Jacobs confessed to her that she killed the police and would do it again.

The snitch was released from jail in exchange for her testimony.

Years later, the snitch recanted her testimony and went on national television to apologize to Jacobs

She also said the DA knew she was lying.

Co-Defendant testimony Star witness Walter Rhodes testified at both Tafero's and Jacobs's trials in exchange for a plea to second-degree murder, escaping the capital charge.

He said Jacobs fired first from the back seat of the car

He then said Tafero got away from the officer holding him, grabbed the gun from Jacobs and shot the two police officers.
Principal exculpatory evidence Tafero always maintained his innocence.

Both eyewitnesses said in their first statement to the police that Tafero was held over the hood of the police car while all the shots were fired.

Jesse did not have enough gunpowder on his hands to prove conclusively he fired a gun.

Hyman saw Rhodes move from the front to the back of the car to put him into position for shooting the police officers, directly contradicting his trial testimony.

Rhodes confessed to the murders at three different times: in 1977, in 1979 and in 1982.

All three recantations became public.

In 1977, Rhodes bragged to two inmates that he alone committed the double murder.

A prison guard named Jowers overheard the confession.

Jowers gave a formal statement to the prosecutor's investigator, but that statement was never turned over to Tafero's lawyers.

The prosecutor said he relied on a polygraph in giving Rhodes a plea bargain to second-degree murder.

Later, three polygraph experts confirmed that Rhodes did not pass the polygraph and one said it was the most botched test he had ever seen.

A Brady violation in Jacobs's case reversed her conviction because the prosecutor failed to turn over the polygraph summary report.

Star witness Rhodes said to the polygraph examiner that he did not think Sonia fired at all, directly contradicting his trial testimony where he said she fired first and handed the gun to Tafero
Sentencing authority Judge according to Florida Statutes.
Statutory aggravating factor Double murder and Felony murder.

Found crime to be especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.

Used the statutory factor that defendant knowingly created a great risk of death to many persons (based on the kidnapping and running of a roadblock after the murders.)

Judge used Tafero's prior conviction for violent crimes.

Judge found the killings were done to avoid arrest (and be returned to prison as both Tafero and Rhodes were on parole) and to hinder the enforcement of laws.

Judge found murders were committed by a person under sentence of imprisonment (judge used the fact Tafero was on parole).

Non-statutory factors in aggravation  
Mitigating factors None.

The penalty phase consisted of a 30-second closing statement by Attorney McCain insulting the jury. See below in "Ineffective Assistance of counsel" section.

Judge failed to consider that Jesse may have been convicted only on a felony murder theory and may not have been the actual cause of death on the facts proven.
Evidence of mental illness, retardation, and/or neurological damage None.
Criminal history When Tafero was 20-years-old, he went to prison for attempted robbery and crimes against nature.
Appellate history Tafero exhausted all his state and federal appeals.

Conviction and death sentence affirmed on direct appeal to Florida Supreme Court. Tafero v. Wainwright.

Certiorari was denied.

State and federal habeas unsuccessful.

In Tafero's state habeas evidentiary hearing the co-defendant initially agreed to tell the truth about what he did, but copped out at the last minute.
Was ineffective assistance of counsel an issue? Yes.

Tafero's trial lawyer had a drug problem during the time of the trial.

After Tafero's trial, the lawyer was disbarred.

He was convicted of obstruction of justice for bribing a witness in an unrelated case and for narcotics conspiracy.

The penalty phase consisted of a 30-second argument by defense counsel who said the defendant feels he did not receive a fair trial, the verdict is not fair, and he will not beg for his life or ask for mercy.

Later, at the state evidentiary hearing on habeas, McCain testified Tafero forced him to make this argument.

Was police misconduct an issue? In Jacobs's trial, two police officers testified that Jacobs had confessed to them, implicating Tafero in the murders.

In the 11th Circuit opinion overturning her conviction, the court found both alleged confessions ludicrous based on the circumstances, but threw only one out on Miranda grounds.

In Tafero's case a police officer claimed Tafero bragged about killing the police, but other officers present at the time of the alleged confession did not overhear Tafero's statement.
Prosecutorial Misconduct The prosecutor suppressed the statement by a guard who overheard Rhodes confess to two inmates.

Prosecutor lied saying he gave Rhodes the deal only because he passed a polygraph exam: the polygraph was a sham.

In Sonia's case, the jailhouse informant who later recanted said the prosecutor knew she, the snitch, was making it up.

In Jesse's case, the prosecutor came up with a bogus jailhouse snitch named as a witness on the first day of trial and failed to divulge facts about that witness' career as a snitch.

(State's Attorney Satz apparently has a habit of using jailhouse snitches in a large percentage of his cases.) In Sonia's case, the prosecutor failed to turn over the exculpatory polygraph summary.

Although the statement only directly exculpated Sonia, because Jesse and Sonia were linked by Rhodes' testimony, any evidence contradicting his trial testimony and showing him to be a liar would also have helped Jesse.

Appellate counsel Craig Barnard and Richard Jorand by of W. Palm Beach Public Defender's Office; Mark Olive and Jenny Greenberg of Tallahassee, Capital Collateral Counsel; Michael Tarre, Coral Gables, Fl, and Bruce Rogow, Nova University, Ft. Lauderdale.


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