Claudia Dreifus is a political journalist whose most recent
Ms. article, "Berlin Diaries," recounted
her trip to Germany to investigate the fate of family members
during the Holocaust. Her most recent book is Scientific
Women on Death Row
A Special Report by Claudia Dreifus
Filmmaker Micki Dickoff, above left,
was a childhood friend of Sunny Jacobs, right.
In 1990 Dickoff learned of Jacobs' plight and spent
two and a half years investigating and reporting
the truth that finally set Jacobs free. Photo by
Steve Goldstein for Ms.
Sonia Jacobs, 56, a tiny, pepper-haired
woman who makes her living as a yoga instructor, is
sitting with me in a Los Angeles luncheonette, ordering
"The cranberry, we don
t have any low-fat cranberry muffins," a waiter
"Okay, fatty cranberries,"
smiles Jacobs, who likes to be called by her nickname,
"Sunny." " How fatty can a cranberry
Sunny Jacobs doesn't sweat the small
stuff. In 1976, when her son Eric was 9 and her daughter
Tina, 15 months old, she 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
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.
Now, 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'd traveled
to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, from North Carolina where
she lived, to meet up with Tafero, Tina s father,
an ex-con who she'd fallen for. I didn't know about
his background when I met him, she maintains, while
picking on her cranberry muffin. "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.
En 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. The murders,
she says, 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'd 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 scenario. They illegally kept from
the defense Walter Rhodes's polygraph report that
contradicted his trial testimony; in fact, the prosecutor
told the press that he gave Rhodes a deal because
the man had passed his polygraph.
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.