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. To make a defendant
with no previous felony convictions eligible, as the
phrase goes, for the death penalty, then-Assistant
District Attorney Michael Satz brought in a surprise
witness: a young woman detained on drug charges around
the time of Sunny's arrest. At the D.A.'s behest,
Brenda Isham would claim in court that, Sunny, her
cellmate for a brief while, had confessed to the killing,
said she enjoyed it, and would do it again.
Sunny can recall sitting in the Broward
County courtroom numb: "They are talking about
you and you don't know what the heck they're talking
about. You say to the lawyer, 'Say something, he's
lying.' He says, 'Shhh, shhh... don't disturb the
proceedings.' And then, when they brought this girl
in, I thought, 'This is a joke. Everybody's going
to know that you're not going to sit down and tell
your life story to some girl who came into jail on
drugs one night.'"
About that shushing lawyer: He was
an underpaid, court-appointed attorney. "I didn
t exactly have O.J. Simpson's 'dream team,'"
she sighs. "My parents were told a private lawyer
would cost six figures. Who has that? They could have
mortgaged their house, but the feeling was, 'You didn't
do anything, there's no evidence, the court will give
you an attorney. It's just a technicality. You go
to court. They'll see you didn't do anything and you'll
go home. We were naive. We believed in the system."
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. Up against such powerful forces,
Jacobs, guilty at worst of loving unwisely, 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.
Thus Sunny entered history as the
first woman sentenced to die after the Supreme Court
reinstated the death penalty. Since that 1976 day,
some 131 women have been similarly condemned; 10 have
been executed nine in the last five years. One knows
some of their names: Karla Faye Tucker, Wanda Jean
For the first five years of her incarceration,
Jacobs existed in total isolation in a tiny cinderblock
cell. Her guards were prohibited from even speaking
While she waited for her appeals
to wend their way through the courts, Jacobs held
herself together by practicing yoga and writing to
Jesse and her children. At night, she dreamt of Ethel
A break, a big one, came in 1982,
when the Florida Supreme Court overturned her death
sentence, converting it to life-imprisonment. Now,
Sunny was released into the general population of
the Broward Correctional Institution, where she noticed
something chilling: The women who were in for murder,
normally, were there because they'd been involved
with a man.
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. Then, she convinced an ABC
news crew to go to Wisconsin, where Brenda Isham the
damaging jailhouse witness now lived. Before network
cameras, a tearful Ms. Isham told of how the prosecutor
had encouraged her to lie about what Jacobs said to
her in 1976.
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