Exonerated while co-defendant, convicted on
similar evidence, went to
the electric chair
Sonia Jacobs at Northwestern University School
of Law in 1998.
(Photo: Loren Santow)
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
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
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
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.
Last Modified: February 17, 2003