Overcoming a death sentence


INTERVIEW:Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle were both handed down the death penalty after being convicted of murders they did not commit. LORNA SIGGINShears how they met the challenge and how the experience led them to each other

WHEN SUNNY JACOBS was in solitary confinement in a US correctional institution, having had a death sentence converted to life imprisonment, she relied on her creativity to keep her sanity. In imagining many things – prison guards as her servants, for instance, and no bills to pay – she never once dreamed she would feature in the weddings section of the New York Times.

Yet there she was in the newspaper late last year, being bear-hugged by her groom, as Brooke Shields, Marlo Thomas and Amy Irving beamed on. The three, who are among several dozen actresses cast in Jacobs’s role on stage, held hands as the couple exchanged wedding vows and Claddagh rings. When Jacobs was asked if she would “love, honour and cherish” her partner, all three actresses chimed in with, “We do.”

Sitting over a bowl of chowder looking out over Galway Bay, Jacobs and her husband, Peter Pringle, crease up repeatedly with mirth as they remember that New York day, particularly the subsequent interview. It’s not every happy pair that makes it into the New York Times. After all, there are guidelines for one of the most avidly read pages in the Society section of the newspaper.

Selected couples have their life story related to readers and their wedding recorded in every little detail. “So the first thing I was asked was where I got my tuxedo,” Pringle says, laughing.

His black jacket cost €20 in Penneys, his black trousers were €12 in Dunnes Stores, and he got his dicky bow and white shirt in Marks Spencer. His bride calculates that her outfit, which she had previously worn at a fundraiser at London’s Dorchester Hotel, cost €60, with the most recent purchase being boots from Barratts in Galway after the dog ate her golden slippers.

As for the guest list, there were 120 people on it, most of whom the bride and groom had never met. “It was great – there was absolutely no stress!” Jacobs says, and there was no big tab to pick up after it was all over.

A series of fortunate events, after two lifetimes of the opposite, led to the occasion being hosted by New York’s Culture Project. Founded by artistic director Allan Buchman, the theatre group is dedicated to “addressing critical human-rights issues by creating and supporting artistic work that amplifies marginalised voices”, and Meryl Streep, Danny Glover, Robin Williams and Frank McCourt have been among the many artists associated with it.

Culture Project came to national and international prominence through its production of The Exonerated, written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, which was first staged in 2002/03 and subsequently televised. The play focuses on six “exonerates” who were wrongfully imprisoned, some for long periods, and then released without compensation or acknowledgement of the travesty of justice that had occurred.

Sunny (Sonia) Jacobs was one of those six, and her story, which she has told in her book Stolen Timeand at international events, has been interpreted by artists such as Susan Sarandon and Mia Farrow. It is a story about being in the wrong place at the wrong time with terrible and lasting consequences.

In 1976 she and her second husband, Jesse Tafero, then on probation for a robbery conviction, and her two children, aged nine years and 10 months, took a 100-mile lift from a casual acquaintance to Florida. They had pulled over briefly for a rest stop when two police officers approached, saw a gun and asked the driver, who was on parole, to step out.

The two officers were shot dead, and the driver forced the couple and their children into the patrol car and sped off.

Stopped at a subsequent armed barricade, a terrified Jacobs, then a “28-year-old vegetarian hippy”, recalled thinking she was going to be rescued. All three adults were arrested, and the driver subsequently testified against Tafero and Jacobs, who were both sentenced to death.

Eric (9) was held in a juvenile detention centre in Florida for two months after Jacobs’s arrest and her parents had to make a court application for his custody. Her daughter Christina was held in foster care for two weeks before Jacobs’s parents got custody of her.

Jacobs was placed in solitary confinement as there was no “death row” for women. Living in a “world of one”, she could measure just six steps between the toilet and the steel door. She could touch the walls by stretching out her arms. She had no window, no mirror, no natural light.

In 1981, her sentence was converted from death to life imprisonment by the Florida Supreme Court. However her darkest days were yet to come: in July 1982 her parents, who had custody of Eric and Christina, were among 153 people killed in the Pan Am flight 759 crash in Kenner, Louisiana.

Now, she was not just incarcerated; she and her children were “all orphans”. Christina was placed in foster care while Eric left school and began working. He had already developed a stutter as a result of his two months’ detention in 1976.

Jacobs maintained a relationship with her husband through correspondence, and it was then she learned that men on “death row” had greater privileges. She filed a law suit which gave her access to two books a week, and four hours a week to leave her cell under supervision.

“I set a goal of becoming the best person I could possibly be, and I turned myself into a sanctuary, with yoga, prayer, push-ups and sit-ups, and with mathematical tasks.” When she was first permitted to leave her cell, she met the librarian who selected her reading material.

“I asked her why she had sent me a book on the sinking of Titanic, as it didn’t seem to be the most cheerful subject for someone in my situation,” Jacobs recalls. “She told me that she had selected it because it was such a big work, with maps and tables and stuff in the back . . . so it was actually an act of kindness.”

Tafero’s letters also sustained her, with one of his final missives reassuring her of his love for her. “You’re my woman, as close as my breath,” he wrote, “you’re the strongest female I’ve ever known. Hand and glove, you know?”

Jacobs was permitted a 10-minute phone conversation with him in May 1990, before his botched execution by electric chair. It took him 13 minutes to die in horrifying circumstances. Just over two years later, Jacobs was released when her conviction was overturned, when the co-defendant who had betrayed her confessed to murdering the police officers.

As two academics, philosophy professor and criminologist Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet observed in their book, In Spite of Innocence, in 1994, “if Jacobs was innocent, then the execution of Tafero was probably the execution of an innocent man, because the same evidence (later shown to be insufficient) used to convict Jacobs had also been used to convict Tafero”.

Slowly rebuilding her life, Jacobs moved to Los Angeles and began a global campaign against the death penalty. It was this work that brought her to Ireland in 1998, where she was to meet the man she would later marry. At an Amnesty International event in Galway, Jacobs noticed a man crying in the audience. When they spoke, he offered her a lift to her next engagement in Cork, and also invited her for a swim in Galway Bay.

Peter Pringle shared his own story with Jacobs on that journey: he was one of the last men to be sentenced to death by hanging in Ireland, having been convicted, with two others, of the murder of Garda Henry Byrne during a raid on the Bank of Ireland in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, in 1980. Another garda, Det John Francis Morley, also died in the raid.

In 1981, a few weeks before his execution date, Pringle’s sentence (along with those of his two co-accused) was commuted to 40 years imprisonment without remission. The State subsequently abolished the death penalty in 1990. Like Jacobs, Pringle had also maintained his innocence while serving time in Portlaoise Prison.

After a protracted legal battle, during which he says he became his own “jailhouse lawyer”, he was able to prove that his conviction was unsafe and unsatisfactory. The Court of Criminal Appeal quashed his conviction in May 1995.

Six months after their first meeting, Pringle and Jacobs were reunited and formed a relationship; she moved to Connemara to live with him and their “two dogs, two cats, two hens, two ducks and eight goats” while also teaching yoga and growing vegetables.

More than a decade later they decided to formalise their relationship, although they were unable to do so in Ireland as Jacobs was unable to supply original documents relating to her first marriage (they had been lost following her parents’ death). So the couple travelled to New York last November for their wedding, having made their own private vows during a winter solstice several years ago.

They say marriage has made them feel happier, content, and they have no rows. During his time in prison, Pringle devised a method of mediating with a particular prison officer that involved debating the difficulties in the third person. “We – as in the officer and I – began to see each other’s point of view by not using the second person. We came to an understanding which proved invaluable,” he says.

Pringle, who was taught how to paint in prison by artist Brian Maguire, has written a book and is seeking a publisher. The couple has set up a website – sunnyandpeter.com– with youth and community campaigner Ruairí McKiernan. They work with arts groups and NGOs opposed to the death penalty, such as Amicus, Reprieve, the Community of Sant’Edigio in Italy, and Seeds of Hope in the North.

They are philosophical about their experience, and Jacobs firmly believes that “karmic balance” has brought them together. Pringle still has two cases outstanding relating to his wrongful conviction, however, he holds no bitterness.

“When you get a high-profile case, there’s enormous pressure to find the culprits,” he says. “The unit assigned to investigate is put under huge pressure . . . It only needs one or two who are prepared to cut corners, creating a momentum which can seem almost impossible to stop. The face of injustice has similar features everywhere.”