Dead Woman Walking

Death row survivor Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs was in New Zealand recently to promote her new book ‘Stolen Time’ – the profoundly shocking, yet inspiring story of her fight to prove her innocence.

sunnyImagine being locked in a cell the width of your arm span, with no view, no pictures on the wall, and no mirror to even validate your existence. Imagine the only regular contact you have with people is when your food is pushed through a hole in the door without a word being uttered to you. Now imagine being locked in that cell for five long years for a crime you didn’t commit.

This is just the predicament Sunny Jacobs found herself in after she and her common law husband Jesse Tafero were wrongfully convicted of the murder of two policemen in 1976. She spent sixteen years in maximum security facilities in Florida, the first five in horrific conditions in solitary confinement on death row. Prison guards were forbidden to speak to her or even gesture in her direction. “If the guards were to get to know me as a human being it would be too difficult for them to participate in carrying out my death sentence, so they were told not to interact for their own sake,” says Sunny. “Yet by dehumanising another human, I believe they ultimately dehumanise themselves.”

Just how did Sunny manage to hold on to her sanity in such a terrifying situation? “I’m not really sure I did. Sanity didn’t apply to my situation and nothing in my previous life prepared me for such a thing. For me it was about what went on inside myself. I realised the cell didn’t have to be a frightening, horrible, angry place – that my world now consisted of what was inside me and an arm’s length past me, and I could decide the type of place it would be. Realising that really changed my life and enabled me to change my cell into a sanctuary.”
Sunny says the yoga and meditation she learned as a teenager helped her find her way through and out of her situation. “Yoga and meditation helped me in every way – spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally. It is at a deeper level that we find our survival when we’re tested like this.”
When Sunny’s death sentence was reduced to life, she reveled in being in the company of other prisoners – eating with them, talking with them, and forging new friendships. “While the other women were unhappy about being sentenced to prison I thought it was great to be among people again.”
Sunny’s book Stolen Time candidly recounts these and other experiences in jail, and includes many of the stream of letters of love and hope she and Jesse wrote to each other during their incarceration. It also describes the day that Sunny, a 27 year old peace loving hippy and devoted mother of two found herself very much in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She and Jesse had accepted a lift from a casual acquaintance (and career criminal) named Walter Rhodes to drive them and their 10 month old daughter Christina and Sunny’s nine-year-old son Eric to Palm Beach, Florida. They had pulled over at a rest stop where Sunny was breastfeeding Christina when a routine police patrol car pulled up beside the vehicle. As two officers approached the car Rhodes panicked and shot them both dead before kidnapping the occupants of his car and careering off down the freeway.
While truly terrified, Sunny believed they would eventually hit a roadblock and be rescued – never imagining she and Jesse would be the ones accused of the crime. But Walter Rhodes, used to dealing with the criminal courts, struck a plea bargain – testifying that Sunny and Jesse were responsible for the killings in exchange for three life sentences. Based on this false testimony, suppressed evidence and a false polygraph test report, the couple was sentenced to death in the electric chair.
It was 16 years before Sunny was finally exonerated in 1992 when Rhodes confessed to the murders. But the confession was too late for Jesse who had been executed two years earlier in a grisly botched execution that caused outrage around the world. The electric chair malfunctioned and the executioner had to pull the switch three times. Before it was over, flames two feet high had shot out of the top of Jesse’s head.
By the time Sunny was finally released, she had lost her soulmate Jesse; her beloved parents had been killed in a plane crash; and her children were virtual strangers. “It was hard re-establishing relationships as I couldn’t just come back and claim my place in people’s lives. It took time to make adjustments. People had expectations that I couldn’t meet so it was a complex process. I found that if I dealt with everything with love I could usually realise the best outcome, even if it wasn’t quite what I had hoped for.”
While they have had their struggles, Sunny has a very good relationship with her children Eric and Tina these days. “Eric’s daughter Claudia is now in university in Adelaide, and my daughter lives in LA with her husband, little girl and new baby boy who she has called Jesse after her father.”
Sunny says her life is “full and rich”. She lives in Ireland with her partner Peter Pringle, another death row survivor who spent nearly 15 years in an Irish jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Together they travel the world campaigning against the death penalty. “While most countries don’t have the death penalty it is important for those that do to realise that it doesn’t achieve what it is supposed to set out to. It doesn’t do anything to keep people safe, and doesn’t address the real problems of why there is violence in our society.”
While enjoying the travel, Sunny says what she enjoys most “is to be home in my garden by the sea.”
Despite living a life layered with tragedy and injustice, there’s not a hint of bitterness in Sunny’s voice which is calm and quiet as she speaks about her incarceration and death row experiences. “I don’t hold on to anger or bitterness. If I did I’d be spoiling my new life, and I’m not about to do that. It’s the only way to have a happy life.”