March 1, 2005

Ex-Prisoners Speak About Death Penalty

Print More

Imagine spending more than 10 years in prison. Now consider being sentenced to death for a crime you did not commit. This situation was reality for Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs and Peter Pringle, who were brought by the Cornell Death Penalty Project to speak in the Moot Court room at the Cornell Law School yesterday afternoon.

Both Jacobs and Pringle were exonerated after spending more than 10 years in prison. Jacobs was released from death row in the United States while Pringle was freed after being in prison in Ireland for almost 15 years of a 40-year sentence without parole for the death of a police officer. Jacobs’ story is also told in the play The Exonerated written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.

Pringle spoke first about his experiences of being convicted and deciding not to give up. “I knew that if I killed myself they would say that I did it out of guilt and remorse,” he said.

He recalled being very angry at first, and then trying to meditate and do yoga. “I got a yoga book and was doing postures and positions in my cell,” he said.

Though lacking in formal education, he then began studying law in the prison to understand his case. A friend helped him by sending him the necessary papers such as the Irish constitution. After 12 years, he took his case to the high court in Ireland. Among his many arguments was the discovery of the notebook of the police officer who had interrogated him. The officer’s written record of the interrogation, allegedly contained in the notebook, had in fact been written before the actual interrogation.

Pringle recounted an unbelievable story from his case of another police officer who was called into the court as a witness. When asked to identify the perpetrator, the officer pointed to a man standing in the public gallery instead of the accused Pringle. However, this event was wiped from the official record by maneuvering from the prosecutor. When he was ultimately released from prison, he was unable to get compensation for which he is currently in the process of suing.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be able to let it go and commit to a spirit of forgiveness,” he said. Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs was 27 years old when she and her husband Jesse Tafero were convicted. She recalled that at the time she had a 9-year-old son, a 10-month-old daughter, a husband and parents. When she left prison, she was 45 years old, an orphan because her parents had died in a plane crash, a widow because her husband had been executed and a grandmother now that her 9-year-old son had grown up and had a 3-month-old daughter.

“Part of my life was taken away; I’m not waiting to be compensated for that because no one can compensate for that,” Jacobs said.

She was with her husband and children, getting a ride with Walter Rhodes, a friend of her husband, when they stopped at a Florida interstate rest stop. She remembered that there were police there, who noticed a gun on the floor of the car and questioned Rhodes. Jacobs then remembers hearing shots fired, and Rhodes asking her and her husband to get in the police car. The three of them were stopped at a roadblock and taken into custody.

Rhodes requested a plea bargain and after subsequent trials, both Tafero and Jacobs were given death sentences while Rhodes was given a life sentence.

At first in complete despair, Jacobs remained in solitary confinement and isolation for five years, until her appeal.

“I was in a terrible dilemma in my beliefs about God,” she said. Anger and frustration were what she had to deal with primarily. “Everything I had been taught to believe in was wrong. I believed in truth, justice and the American way and that God wouldn’t let this happen to us,” Jacobs said.

She said that she had a choice and that she chose to believe in God, to have hope, and to use the time to become the best person she could be.

“I wasn’t living in denial, I just decided not to dwell on the situation; I was given the gift of time, to do spiritual work, an opportunity I never would’ve had on the outside,” she said.

She argued that she wanted to be a loving mother and that she could not do that if, when everything was finally resolved, she was devastated, miserable and mentally unbalanced. Like Pringle, she turned to meditation and yoga while imprisoned and also did push-ups and sit-ups.

In 1990, her husband was executed. According to Jacobs, the natural sponge on the electric chair had been replaced with an artificial one, so instead of dying quickly, his head caught fire and he was burned alive on the third try.

“I kept my faith that eventually it would be okay,” Jacobs said.

She helped other women prisoners by teaching them yoga and meditation, and by encouraging them to read. With help from people on the outside, she went to court again armed with information that had been previously hidden. She was offered a deal that if she would say that Jesse committed the crime, she would be released. She said no, and later that week she was offered a plea that would maintain her innocence but not allow her to sue.

“I went to see my son, who had a wife and child of his own. His daughter said: ‘Grandma, I know why you didn’t come to see me, you were lost.’ Yes, I was, but not anymore.” She ended by saying, “I’m very glad that I chose peace and reconciliation.” She offered the advice: “Don’t ever be ruled by fear, because it will kill you.”

The speakers were met with a standing ovation from the audience in the Moot Court room. “I thought it was amazing. I don’t know how anyone could listen to a story like that and not be against the death penalty,” said Jacqueline Moessner law.

According to Prof. Sheri Lynn Johnson, law, director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, this lecture allowed people to put both faces and personalities to the names.

“I think it’s important for people to hear that there are real, innocent people convicted to death,” she said.

Archived article by Vanessa Hoffman
Sun Staff Writer