Exonerated while co-defendant, convicted on similar evidence, went to the electric chair
Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs and Jesse Joseph Tafero, the father of the younger of her two children, were tried separately, convicted, and sentenced to death by the same judge for the 1976 murders of two law enforcement officers at a rest stop off of Interstate 95 in Broward County, Florida.
Jacobs, Tafero, their 10-month-old daughter, Jacobs’ 6-year-old son, and Walter Norman Rhodes, a friend of Tafero’s, were sleeping in a car that was approached by Phillip Black, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper on routine patrol. With Black was a friend, Donald Irwin, a vacationing Canadian constable.
Sonia Jacobs at NU Law (Photo: Loren Santow)
The murder and kidnaping
After Black learned via radio that Rhodes had a criminal record, gunfire broke out. Black and Irwin were slain, and the group sped off in the Black’s patrol car, driven by Rhodes. At a nearby apartment complex, Rhodes commandeered a car and kidnapped the man in it, Leonard Levinson. They were captured a little later when Rhodes lost control of the car in an attempt to evade a police roadblock.
Jacobs and Tafero maintained from the beginning that Rhodes had shot the officers, and that they had no choice but to go along with him after the shooting. Although there were two eyewitnesses to events surrounding the murders, neither contradicted Jacobs’ and Tafero’s version of what happened. Nor was their version contradicted by physical evidence. Both Tafero and Rhodes had gunpowder residue on their hands, a fact that was consistent with Tafero’s claim that Rhodes handed him the gun after shooting the officers. There was no gunpowder residue on Jacobs’ hands.
The convictions and sentencing
The convictions of Jacobs and Tafero rested primarily on the testimony of Rhodes, who was allowed to plead guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. In Jacobs’ case, the prosecution also presented the testimony of a jailhouse informant, Brenda Isham, who claimed Jacobs had confessed.
The trials were surrounded by massive publicity, which was overwhelmingly prejudicial. All prospective jurors acknowledged knowing about the case, and neither jury was sequestered. The jury in the Jacobs case recommended a life sentence, but Judge M. Daniel Futch, Jr. imposed death, as he had done earlier in the Tafero case. Futch, known as “Maximum Dan,” was a former Florida Highway Patrol trooper who kept a miniature replica of an electric chair on his desk.
In 1978, the Florida Supreme Court temporarily relinquished jurisdiction of Jacobs’ case, directing Futch to hold a hearing on whether the Broward County State Attorney had improperly withheld exculpatory evidence during pretrial discovery, including reports stating that Rhodes had told a prison guard that he alone shot the officers and that he had given answers during a polygraph test that were inconsistent with his trial testimony. Jacobs v. State, 357 So. 2d (1978).
Futch found no merit in Jacobs’ claims, saying that Rhodes’ purported statement to the prison guard had been equivocal and that it was impossible to establish precisely what Rhodes had said during the polygraph examination because there was no verbatim transcript of the questions and answers. The results of the polygraph itself, which Rhodes failed, had been properly withheld because, as a matter of law, polygraph results were not discoverable.
Jacobs’ death sentence vacated
In 1981, the Florida Supreme Court agreed that the discovery issues did not warrant a new trial, affirming Jacobs’ conviction. However, the court commuted her sentence to life in prison, holding that Futch had lacked sufficient basis to override the jury’s recommendation of a life sentence. Jacobs v. State, 396 So. 2d 713 (1981).
Tafero was not so lucky. He remained on death row, despite growing doubts about the credibility of prosecution’s star witness. Both Tafero and Jacobs then sought federal writs of habeas corpus. His was denied, Tafero v. Wainwright, 796 F.2d 1314 (1986), but Jacobs won a hearing before a federal magistrate. During that proceeding, Brenda Isham, the jailhouse informant who had helped send Jacobs to death row a decade earlier, admitted that she had committed perjury at the trial and that Jacobs, in fact, had not confessed. Isham said that, before she agreed to testify, detectives had warned her that she might “make an enemy” of the Broward County State Attorney if she refused to testify against Jacobs.
Tafero’s macabre execution
Jacobs’ petition for a writ of habeas corpus was still pending when, on May 4, 1990, Tafero was put to death in the Florida electric chair. Officials interrupted the execution three times because flames and smoke shot out of his head. During the first interruption, he continued to move and breathe.
Shortly before the execution, filmmaker Micki Dickoff had initiated correspondence with Jacobs. The two had been childhood friends, growing up in Indiana. Dickoff soon became persuaded of Jacobs innocence and obtained affidavits used to supplement the pending habeas corpus petition, which the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit granted in February 1992. Jacobs v. Singletary, 952 F.2d 1282 (1992).
The following October, the Broward County State Attorney offered to release Jacobs if she would enter a plea in which she did not admit guilt. Otherwise she faced a re-trial and possibly another death sentence. She took the plea deal and was released.
Dickoff made a documentary on the case entitled “In the Blink of an Eye,” which aired as an ABC movie of the week in 1996.
Tafero’s botched execution, and several similarly macabre ones, prompted Florida finally to abandon its electric chair in favor of death by lethal injection in 2000. Although the prosecution continued to maintain that Tafero was guilty, the evidence strongly suggested otherwise.
Jurisdiction: Broward County, Florida
Date of crime: February 20, 1976
Date of arrest: February 20, 1976
Charge: First-degree murder of two police officers and kidnaping
Sentence: Death for the murders, life for the kidnaping
Release date: October 9, 1992
Months wrongfully incarcerated: 200
Date of birth: 1947
Age at time of arrest: 28
Defendant race: Caucasian
Race of victim(s): Caucasian
Defendant prior felony record: None
Known factors leading to wrongful conviction: Testimony of man who ultimately confessed to the murder
Did an appellate court ever affirm conviction? Yes
Exonerated by: Confession of actual killer, recantation of jailhouse snitch, intervention of filmmaker
Compensation for wrongful imprisonment: None
The foregoing summary was prepared by Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions. Permission is granted to reprint, quote, or post on other web sites with appropriate attribution.