Friday, 15 June 2007

Sunny Jacobs - campaigner against the death penalty

Last Update: Friday, June 15, 2007. 3:01pm AEST

In 1976, Sunny Jacobs was sent to prison when she was convicted of the murder of two policemen in Florida. Her partner Jesse was sent to the electric chair for the same crime - but they were both innocent. Sunny spent 17 years in jail - five of those years on death row; she went in a young mother, a daughter and a wife and when she came out, she was a grandmother, a widow and an orphan.

When the crime was committed, Sunny was travelling to Florida to help out her partner Jesse. They got caught up with one of Jesse's friends, ex-con Walter Rhodes, who actually murdered the two policemen in front of Sunny and Jesse.

Now, with hindsight, Sunny admits she was blind to the potential danger of following Jesse to Florida where he was associating with Walter Rhodes. "I made a fateful decision that now when I look back at it I can say I was pretty stupid," she says. "We (son Eric, 9-years-old, Tina, 10-months-old and Sunny) were just sitting in the back seat of the car and then after the shooting we were just paralysed with disbelief and fear that this was actually happening around us ... Eric was sitting beside me completely silent and so was the baby silent. There was Mr Rhodes... with a gun in his hand telling us to get in the police car...

"I asked Jesse couldn't we just stay there and not have to go with him but he said the guy had just shot two policemen and he was desperate and he might consider us witnesses and kill us if we didn't come with him, so you don't argue with a guy with a smoking gun."
Sunny says the motivation behind her then being charged and tried as an accomplice to the murders was partly political. "I later was told by one of the jurors that they were trying to make an example of a woman; to send a clear message to all the criminals out there that even a woman would get the electric chair."

Sunny spent the first five of her seventeen years in prison on Death Row. "Sanity really didn't apply to my situation. You had to go someplace deeper inside yourself. Your mind was totally boggled, your identity was taken away from you. Your power is taken. Your clothes are taken. You're put in a cell and you're given a number and that number is basically your inventory number. You belong to the state and you have a number and you're only there waiting until they decide to take your life," she remembers.

"In the rules, the guards weren't to speak to me because if they get to know a person as a human being they can't possibly participate in taking that person's life. So I had to be treated as less than human; as 'other than'."

Sunny drew on her inner resources through meditation and yoga to endure the isolation of death row and stave off hopelessness. "[Meditation] let me know there was more to me than just what they could keep in the cell. I used the yoga to clear myself and I used the meditation to get beyond the situation my body had to suffer... When people say, 'did you lose your mind?' I say, 'Maybe I did, but it is really at a deeper level that we find our survival when we're tested in that way'."

After five years, Sunny's death sentence was commuted to a life sentence. "I was allowed to be among people again. I was delighted. I thought this was wonderful. I got to have breakfast with people, I got to interact with them and talk with them and while everybody else was completely miserable for having been sentenced to prison, I thought it was great!" she says.

Jesse, however, never made it out of death row, and his wrongful execution by electric chair was made more horrific by malfunctioning equipment. "From the time they pulled the switch the first time it took 13-and-a-half minutes for Jesse to die... The people that were there on behalf of the press to witness the execution were so traumatised by it that even ten years later they're still writing about it, because... his head caught fire and smoke came out of his ears and he strained against the restraints and they did this three times before he was actually pronounced dead."

Now Sunny lives in Ireland, and travels the world campaigning against the death penalty. Since her release she's become aware of the multitude of injustices contained in her case. "The problem with the justice system as it was and as it remains, is there's no accountability. They can do that to a person and then say, 'Oh well, made a mistake'."

Sunny's book about her experiences is called Stolen Time.

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