Jesse Tafero

Jesse Tafero

Jessie Joseph Tafero (born October 12, 1946 — died May 4, 1990), was a convicted rapist, drug dealer and murderer executed via electric chair in the state of Florida for the murders of Florida Highway Patrol officer Phillip Black and Donald Irwin, a visiting Canadian constable and friend of Black.

The crime, trial, and execution

On the morning of February 20, 1976, Black and Irwin approached a car parked at a rest stop for a routine check. Tafero, his partner Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs, her two children (ages 9 years and 10 months), and Walter Rhodes were found asleep inside. Tafero had previously been in prison and was on probation. Jacobs had previous convictions for prostitution and drug charges. 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. According to Rhodes, Tafero then shot both Black and Irwin with the gun, which was illegally registered to Jacobs, and led the others into the police car and fled the scene. They later disposed of the police car and kidnapped a man and stole his car. All three were arrested after being caught in a roadblock. When they were arrested, the gun was found in Tafero's waistband.

Prior to his conviction for murder, Tafero had been convicted of rape, robbery, burglary and drug charges while Jacobs had been convicted of prostitution and selling amphetamine. Rhodes was on parole for assault with intent to commit robbery. Tafero and Jacobs were also wanted for drug and weapons charges in South Carolina. The prosecution would argue that Tafero and Jacobs had more motive to avoid arrest.

At their trial, Rhodes testified that Tafero and Jacobs were solely responsible for the murders. Tafero and Jacobs were convicted of capital murder and were sentenced to death while Rhodes was sentenced to 3 life sentences. He was released in 1994 following parole for good behavior. The children were placed in the care of Sunny Jacobs' parents until their deaths in a 1982 plane crash. The children were then separated and Sunny's younger child, Christina, bounced around the foster care system for years, while Sunny's older child, Eric, who was in his mid teens lived on his own, struggling to survive by working at a pizza restaurant and various odd jobs.

Tafero and Jacobs continued their relationship through letters while serving time in the prison. Because there was no death row for women in Florida, Jacobs was put into solitary confinement for the first five years of her imprisonment, let out only once or twice a week for exercise. She learned yoga to pass the time, and after being moved to the general prison population, began teaching yoga to other prisoners.

Because the jury had recommended a life sentence for Jacobs, the court commuted Jacobs' sentence to life in prison, but not Tafero's.

Jessie Tafero was to be executed by electrocution. However, the machine, dubbed "Old Sparky", malfunctioned, causing six-inch flames to shoot out of Tafero's head. A member of the execution team had used a synthetic sponge rather than a sea sponge, which is necessary to provide greater conductivity and a quick death. In all, three jolts of electricity were required to render Tafero dead, a process that took 6 minutes and 30 seconds.

The Jesse Tafero case became the cause célèbre among death penalty opponents, who cited the brutal circumstances of his execution as reasons it should be abolished.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found reason to overturn the conviction of Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs. She was released after accepting a plea bargain in which she pled nolo contendere (technically an Alford plea of "guilty", but without admitting factual guilt) to all of the charges against her. After her release, Jacobs was reunited with her children and became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. She moved to Ireland, where she now lives with her new partner Peter Pringle (also a Death Row exoneree) and continues to teach yoga, offering it also to prison inmates in her new country. She wrote the 2007 book, "Stolen Time", about the events that changed her life, as well as a forthcoming book about yoga, "If you can breathe, you can do it". Jacobs also campaigns for human rights, working with Amnesty International and other organizations. Tafero and Jacobs' story, and the stories of five other exonerees, was told in a highly fictionalized play called "The Exonerated" performed in London at The Riverside Studios. She was portrayed in a TV movie version by actress Susan Sarandon, as well as a documentary film created by her childhood friend Micki Dickoff.

Problems with Rhodes's testimony

Prior to his release, Rhodes had admitted several times that he had lied about his involvement in the shooting. In Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs's version of events, she and Tafero had accepted a lift from Rhodes a casual acquaintance (who was in breach of his parole, although she claims this was not known to the couple) while they were on the run from authorities in North Carolina. Rhodes then carried out the shooting. While Tafero had the gun at the time of his arrest Rhodes was the only person on which traces of gunpowder were found. He changed his story repeatedly over the years (Cite, St Petersburg Times). Sunny "Sonia" Jacobs has always maintained that she and Tafero were completely innocent of the crime, and that her plea was in response to advice from her lawyer. (Cite. Guardian Monday February 20, 2006).

See also


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