Sunny’s stolen time..
compiled by 4WardEver UK
from various sources – 7th April 2007
News updates listed at the foot of this item
When Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs went to prison for murder in 1976, her son was 9. Her daughter, just 10 months old, was still being nursed by her. 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. In 1976, Sunny was convicted of killing two police officers in Florida and sentenced to be the first woman to die in the electric chair, under what was then a newly reinstated capital punishment law.
She subsequently spent five years in isolation on Florida’s death row and a total of nearly 17 years in a maximum security prison. Her children were taken from her and her common law husband, Jesse Tafero, convicted of the same murders, was put to death in 1990 in an electrocution so grizzly that his head caught on fire.
It is true that Sunny was present at the crime, though in the most passive way. In February of 1976, when she was 28 years old, she had travelled to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from North Carolina where she lived, to meet up with Tafero, an ex-con who she had fallen for. Sunny has been quoted as saying, “I didn’t know about his background when I met him, and then, once we were together, it was, you know, love.”
In Florida that day, an acquaintance of Jesse’s, a career-criminal named Walter Rhodes, offered to drive Sunny, Jesse, and the children to West Palm Beach, where Sunny hoped to pick up some money wired there by her parents. On route, they were stopped by two police officers, who spotted a gun on the floorboard by Rhodes’s feet. Rhodes panicked and shot the officers. Sunny, in the back, covering her children like a human shield, didn’t even see the killings. She says, “It all happened in a blink of an eye.”
Almost immediately after their arrests, Rhodes cut a deal with the prosecutor. In exchange for a lesser, second-degree murder charge, he agreed to testify that it was Jesse and Sunny who had done the killing. Though Rhodes would fail a lie detector test, and while he was the only one of the trio who tested definitively positive for firing a gun, the authorities committed themselves to his version of events. They illegally kept from the defence Walter Rhodes’s polygraph report that contradicted his trial testimony. Meanwhile, Sunny and Jesse were painted in the media as a kind of Bonnie and Clyde team, thrill-seekers who killed for the fun of it.
Jesse, the first to go to court, was quickly found guilty and sentenced to death. At Sunny’s trial, the most persuasive evidence the D.A. had was Walter Rhodes’s testimony. As luck would have it, the system assigned her a judge, Daniel Futch, famous throughout Florida for decorating his desk with a sparking model of the electric chair. Sunny found herself convicted of two murders she hadn’t committed. The jury recommended a life sentence. Judge Futch overruled them and ordered death by electrocution.
Ultimately, it would take a woman to help Sonia Jacobs win back her future. In 1990, a childhood pal of Sunny’s, (West Coast filmmaker Micki Dickoff), heard about her old friend’s situation. Dickoff became obsessed with the case and spent the next two and a half years investigating it. She used her filmmaking skills to create computer graphic storyboards proving that Walter Rhodes could have fired all the shots.
With all this new information and with the reality that Walter Rhodes, in his jail cell, was telling new versions of the old story the Federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the original conviction.
On 9th October 1992, Sunny Jacobs strode out into the Florida sunlight, a liberated woman in every sense of the word. She is, to this day, one of only two condemned women, the other is Sabrina Butler of Mississippi who has managed to return to what inmates call, “the free world.
“Getting back family is the hardest part,” says Sunny, “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,” Sunny replied. “I was.”
The reunion with her daughter, Tina, didn’t go as smoothly. The wounds began to heal a few months later. Eventually, they began living together, got their first drivers’ licenses and climbed mountains.
“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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