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From Death Row to Love

Tue, Oct 7, 2014

Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle each spent more than 15 years on death row in the United States and Ireland, respectively.

Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle each spent more than 15 years on death row in the United States and Ireland, respectively.

I’m not quite sure what to expect from former Death Row inmates Peter Pringle and his wife Sunny Jacobs. I imagine a serious man with a lot of latent anger and maybe even a persecution complex. What I find, however, is a chap who quite literally preaches love and forgiveness. It finally dawned on me that innocent people die in the electric chair, too.

Sunny’s Story

Sunny Jacobs’ partner Jesse Tafero and their children (9 years and 10 months) were “… in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people” when two police officers were killed in Florida. (They had accepted a lift with a man named Walter Rhodes. Police looked into the car at a routine stop and saw a gun lying on the floor.) Within seconds the two officers were dead.

When the police finally tracked down Jacobs, Tafero and Rhodes at a roadblock (“we [Jacobs, Jesse and the children] were forced into the police car by Rhodes… we were basically hostages” – Sunny) the gun was in Tafero’s waistband. Tafero said he was carrying it as Rhodes had handed it to him after he shot the policemen, so he could drive with free hands. Gunpowder tests found residue on Rhodes consistent with “having discharged a weapon.”

The man who committed the crime took a plea bargain (which Sunny adds, “shouldn’t be allowed in capital cases.”) He said that Sunny and her boyfriend had killed the officers and was given three life sentences in exchange for his testimony.

Sunny and her partner, on the other hand, were handed down death sentences (Sunny was the only woman on death row in the U.S. at that time and as there was no death row per se for females, she was put in solitary confinement for five years initially, followed by a maximum security cell). The children had to find alternative homes. It took Sunny’s parents two weeks to get the baby (she was being held in custody) and it took them two months to get the 9-year-old boy as he was being held in juvenile detention isolation. “My son was taken to hearings at night with his hands cuffed behind his back and without representation. This resulted in him developing a speech impediment which meant he was sent to a school for special needs.

“The guards were under orders not to speak to me, if they are going to participate in my execution they can’t see me as human or sympathize, so I spent my time pacing a few steps back and forth in anger and confusion and fear… fear that I would be executed. I had … a Bible, and I read … that my life was mine and it’d be foolish of me to spend my life in fear, so I decided my cell would be my sanctuary and I could use it to become the best person I could be, instead of viewing it as the place I was sitting in, waiting to die. So I did yoga, meditated and prayed.”

For the next six years the children resided with Sunny’s parents until the parents were killed in a plane crash.

On May 4, 1990, Sunny’s partner Jesse Tafero was put into the electric chair. A natural sea sponge was substituted for a synthetic sponge (sea sponge is a greater conductor) and so when the lever was pulled Tafero didn’t die. Instead, spectators were mortified to witness two-foot flames jump from his metal helmet. The lever was pulled again and Tafero buckled against the restraints. It would take a third pull of the lever and 13.5 minutes to pass before Tafero died. Sunny’s daughter, who was by now 15, attempted to commit suicide when she heard what had happened to her dad.

Two years after the execution, the real shooter admitted that Jesse Tafero was an innocent man and that he had committed the murder, which exonerated Sunny.

Sunny and Peter got married after  meeting in Ireland and sharing their stories.

Sunny and Peter got married after meeting in Ireland and sharing their stories.

Peter’s Story

On July 7, 1980, there was a bank robbery in County Roscommon in Ireland. Afterward, the car of robbers collided with a police car, leading to an exchange of gunfire. Two officers were killed.

Three men were arrested, and a fourth was being pursued in County Galway, where Peter Pringle was. Peter, a known republican with links to the political wing of the volatile splinter group the INL (although he’d left all this behind him by this time), was arrested when the police couldn’t catch the other man.

“I was convicted and sentenced to death, upon the words of a police officer, who after 43 hours of interrogation said I had uttered these words, ‘I know you know I was involved, but on the advice of my solicitor, I am saying nothing and you’ll have to prove it all the way.’ So I was condemned to death on this untruth,” Peter said.

Peter was placed in what’s known as a “death cell.” After a failed appeal, his death sentence was upheld and he was due to hang on June 8, 1981. Eleven days before his scheduled execution, the president changed his sentence to 40 years without the possibility of parole, and he was released into the general prison population.

“I knew at this stage I had to prove my innocence so I tried to study law,” Peter said.

Like Sunny, Peter also taught himself yoga and meditation to deal with his anger and focus on studying.

“In January 1992 I opened my case in the High Court in Dublin on my own behalf, and in July I won an order for discovery of the police papers from the case. Six months later when I got those documents, I found that I was supplied with a photocopy of the notebook of the police officer who claimed I had made that statement, [admitting guilt] and in his notebook he had written in the alleged statement before his entry for the interrogation in which he claimed I said it.”

The case ran from January 1992 to May 1995. Two years on, a human rights lawyer offered to help Peter, and finally it was quashed by the Court of Criminal Appeal.

“But the State ordered a retrial, I was sent back to prison on remand and the following day I was brought back to court and was given bail. A week later they dropped the case. I was the only person in the history of the State to get my conviction overturned in a capital case, I’m the only living person in Europe to have had his conviction overturned and released.”

You were free, but did you receive compensation to get your life up and running?

“Compensation [laughs]… they paid me nothing. When I was released on 17 May 1995, I was on the street with no money, no ID, no passport, no driving license, no social security number, nowhere to live… nothing… Not even bus fare.”

So you became homeless?

“Well, I had family and friends who took care of me until I got everything sorted.”

A Fateful Meeting

“Three years after release I met with Steve Earle, (singer/songwriter — Copperhead Road et al.) who had been asked to witness an execution in Texas, but he was so traumatized that he needed a break to clear his head, and came to Ireland. We exchanged stories and became friends. So in Tennessee on a march against the death penalty, Steve said to Sunny that she’d have to talk to Peter Pringle when she came to Ireland, as she was due to give a talk at the AGM of the Irish section of Amnesty International. So this American lady phoned me and we met up the following Friday with two friends, and when she told her story I was mesmerized.”

Sunny and Peter wax lyrical about their getting together, each completing the other’s sentences about staying in their respective countries before admitting their love for each other. “We’d lived alone so long we weren’t sure we’d know how to live together, but 9/11 was the point we said, ‘ let’s do this’ so Sunny moved here and we live in a little cottage that we rent with two dogs, two cats, a couple of hens and ducks, eight goats; we try to be self-sufficient as we’ve no money as neither of us received compensation.”

When they married, many Hollywood celebrities came to the ceremony.

“Yes, some of the actresses [Brooke Shields, Amy Irving, etc.] who’d played the part of Sunny in the play The Exonerated came along and when they said, ‘do you take this man’ they all said ‘yes’ which was really funny.”

By Samantha Bailie, Ireland’s Big Issue

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