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Law and Order
on 25 May 2010
Anyone familiar with the American legal system will know its strengths and weaknesses. The former include long sentences and alternatives to custody, the latter plea bargaining and the election of district attorneys. The absence of the safeguard of subjudice allows media speculation to create an environment of presumed guilt which, for a district attorney seeking re-election, tends to dull due process in favour of getting a result. As one New York judge pointed out, he preferred a plea bargain and swift conclusion to trying a case in full. The question of justice was incidental to the process.
In 1976 Sunny Jacobs, a twenty-eight year old mother of two, was sentenced to death for her part in the alleged murder of two police officers along with her partner Jesse Tafero. They were convicted on the false testimony of the shooter who had carried out the killings and made a plea bargain in return for testimony that Jacobs and Tafero were responsible. After five years on death row in solitary confinement her sentence was reduced to the life imprionment the jury had recommended and the judge had ignored. In 1990 Tafero was executed in the electric chair, two years later Jacobs was released after taking an Alford plea. Jacobs had had her conviction and sentence overturned but the State of Florida was prepared to try her again on the same charges. The Alford plea "a plea of convenience" allowed the State to write into the record what they would have presented at trial and included an adjudication of guilt of a lesser degree in exchange for her freedom. She took the deal even though, in her eyes, justice was not done.
Under normal circumstances a reader would have great sympathy for Jacobs but, having read her account, it's not Jacobs for whom one feels sympathy but the principle of justice which is applied so uncertainly in the USA. Jacobs does tell a compelling story of her time in prison but what becomes clear is that she was, in many ways, the author of her own misfortune. Existing in a world of pot smoking peace and love she was in a long term relationship when Tafero entered her life. He created a wedge between Jacobs and her lover by introducing the latter to hard drugs as a means of splitting them up. Although he was in breach of parole she willingly joined him and went on the run. She considers herself naive but in practice she was complicit by not asking questions.
They met a character named Walter Rhodes who drove them and Jacobs's children to Florida, parking at a rest area on the insterstate highway. They were woken by police officers demanding ID. Tafero refused because he was in violation of parole. What happened next is unclear. According to Jacobs Rhodes opened fire killing the officers, stole their police car then took another car with its owner as hostage. Armed police officers ended the chase and Tafero was captured with a gun in his possession. Jacobs claimed it happened so fast she had no opportunity to consider her position. Rhodes turned States' evidence, Jacobs and Tafero were found guilty on two counts of murder and one of kidnapping. Although the jury recommended life for Jacobs, the judge pronounced the death sentence.
Jacobs burned her candle for Tafero even after he was executed, despite the fact that he cheated on her while in death row. Love is blind and she never accepted he was anything other than the man in her life. Her letters to him are a combination of trust in the legal system and a recording of the mundane. Her recollection of events in prison remind one how degrading it can be, especially when body searches are undertaken and examinations of places where the sun don't shine occur. On the other hand prisoners go to extraordinary lengths to conceal drugs while incarcerated. Every little thing is seen in terms of a success or failure and institutionalisation is inevitable. Jacobs took up yoga, Tafero declared himself the head of the Kai-Shu sect of Zen Buddhism.
After release Jacobs met someone else and moved to the west of Ireland where she lives, teaching yoga and travelling the world raising awareness about the death penalty. Her son moved to Australia and her daughter eventually left the nest. Whether any of them will be free of the past is anyone's guess. The law is not an exact science which is why the finality of the death sentence is inappropriate, especially in a country which has been known to send terrorists to six consecutive life sentences plus 99 years. Clive Stafford Smith, a tireless campaigner against the death penalty, describes Jacobs "as an inspirational woman". I'm not sure I agree. While the way she dealt with her ordeal is a fine example of the ability of the human spirit to survive against all the odds, her inability to recognise Tafero as the manipulative loser he was defies common sense. Writing the book may have had a cathartic purpose for her but can never bring back the three lives lost or undo the trauma caused. Three stars.