Stolen Time: One Woman’s Inspiring Story As An Innocent Condemned To Death (by Charlie Ryder)

My friend, Charlie Ryder, wrote this amazing story.

In 1976, Sonia “Sunny“ Jacobs, and Jesse Tafero, her common-law husband of three years, accepted a lift from a man called Walter Rhodes—a man who had a criminal record and had broken his parole conditions. Together with their ten month old daughter Christina, and Eric, Jacobs’ nine year old son from a previous relationship, the couple were traveling to the coast to look for casual work. Pulled over at a rest stop on the interstate route, Jacobs was breast-feeding Christina when a routine police patrol pulled up beside the vehicle. With two officers approaching the vehicle, Jacobs still didn’t think anything was amiss until Rhodes panicked and shot both men dead. He then kidnapped the occupants of his car and tore down the freeway. They eventually encountered an armed barricade across the road. But instead of the police rescuing Jacobs and Tafero, they arrested them on suspicion of murder. Rhodes, who was used to dealing with the criminal courts, struck a plea bargain. In exchange for three life sentences, he testified that Jacobs and Tafero were solely responsible for the killings.

“My whole world seemed to dissolve”, Sunny says, “Anger and disbelief, that’s what I remember feeling most.” (When she was sentenced to death.) “They tell you exactly how they’re gonna do it. They’re gonna send 2,200 volts of electricity through your body until you’re dead. And then they ask you if you have anything to say to that and, really, it’s kind of dumbfounding.”

In a cell the width of her arm-span, Sunny spent five years on death row in solitary confinement. Her only lifeline was the stream of impassioned, life-affirming letters between herself and Jesse, offering love and strength, each echoing the other’s conviction that the truth would soon be revealed. She refused to lose hope, even though the state had falsified testimonies and inconclusive polygraph tests to condemn her and Jesse, disregarding hidden evidence and the true murderer’s confession. Locked into a 9ft x 6ft, windowless, and permanently lit cell on death row, only the delivery of meals gave her a sense of time; and guards were not allowed to talk to her.

“It feels as if you are starting to dry up and die. Your head is gone, the head will do you in, make you angry, make you scared, makes you self-pity and confused. The answer is not there. In your heart there’s pain and sorrow and suffering, but the answer is not there. You have to go deeper than that and then you connect with what I guess you would call your spirit and it’s there that you can find the way to open up into that other dimension of life. It’s something very basic. Either you find it or you keep spinning in circles until you crash and burn.”

In 1981, Sunny’s sentence was reduced to life and she revelled in the freedom of eating in the company of other prisoners, teaching yoga, and forging new relationships, yet Jesse remained on death row. Sunny lived under the constant shadow of his impending execution and the loss of contact with her children. “It had a terrible effect on my kids and I worried so much for them when I was there. Eric, my son, was also put into detention for two months when I was arrested. How could you do that to a child? He developed a terrible stutter and had an awful, awful time of it. Eventually, my parents got custody of the two kids which was some relief.”

But when Sunny’s parents were killed in a plane crash in 1982, Christina was put into foster care and Eric, then in his middle teens, went out alone and supported himself as a pizza delivery boy. Her parents’ death was the lowest moment in prison, along with the moment she heard Tefaro had been executed. Until that point the couple had continued to nurture their relationship through letters: “We carried on a fairly full life in our letters, actually, including our sex life.” This is evidenced in one of the last letters Jesse wrote: “We’re so lucky, I love you so much, you’re my woman, as close as my breath, you’re the strongest female I’ve ever known. Hand and glove you know?”

He suffered a brutal death. The electric chair malfunctioned and his executioners had to pull the switch three times. It took three bolts of electricity, which lasted 55 seconds each, and 13 minutes for him to die. Flames eventually shot from his head and smoke came out of his ears. Jessie died in a horrible, botched execution that caused outrage the world over.

Finally in late 1992, after a campaign led by a childhood friend of hers, the court of appeal overturned her conviction. Without compensation, Sunny Jacobs walked out of jail as a 45 year old grandmother, her son Eric having married and fathered a child while she was incarcerated.

Since her release from prison, Sunny Jacobs has spent much of her time campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty. It was on such a speaking tour for Amnesty International in Cork that she met her husband Peter Pringle, a former fisherman: “I was speaking and I was aware of this man in the audience listening to me and he was crying. After my talk he came up to me and told me his story; he was wrongly imprisoned for 15 years. He survived through yoga and meditation until he was able to learn enough about the law to secure his release.”

“When we met, Peter and I had a discussion about forgiveness. Maybe I’m entitled to feelings of negativity, but they don’t serve me. I’ve come to terms with myself. I’ve forgiven myself for being such a stupid girl. We have the whole gamut of feelings. I’m not going to live in this area where there’s resentment and anger and looking to be repaid for what was taken from me, and I’m not going to live where everything is beautiful and there’s nothing bad in the whole world. Somewhere in between is where I chose to live.”

Soon after meeting Peter they married and now live in a beautiful part of Western Ireland where Jacobs rears chickens, grows vegetables, and teaches yoga. “We are very happy together and so lucky to live the life we do. People might think I’m mad but I feel blessed. When I came out of prison I made a choice. To be bitter and twisted or to fill my life with joy and celebration. It was the same choice I made in prison. I wasn’t going to be defeated. Forgiveness is a selfish act. If I hadn’t forgiven the people who put me in jail, I would not have had the marvellous life I have now. No matter how awful your circumstances may be, you always have a chance to make them better.”

I asked Sunny to write an article on the Art of Forgiveness and she has shared this gift of ‘forgiveness as an art form’.


“Art” suggests the use of tools, the creation of a representation of one’s inner process, the expression of feelings to be shared with and interpreted by others. Art requires skill in the choice and use of the tools and basic raw materials. And it depends on creativity—inspiration, insight, emotion—and the courage to externalize it, expose it, and become vulnerable, in a sense. But it is through that very willingness to become vulnerable that we find the greatest strength and freedom. If forgiveness is an art, then we should be able to talk about the tools, the skills, and the raw materials with which the artist must become acquainted.

The Tools

For me, the most important tools were yoga and meditation because they helped me to clear away the debris of the past in order to have a clear slate on which to begin. Both of these practices are based on the breath, which is a physical manifestation of the spirit, the breath of Life that connects us all.

The Raw Materials

But before one can begin, there are some decisions to be made. The basic colours of one’s palette must be chosen. With what would you fill your Life’s canvas? Do you prefer happy or sad? Joyousness or depression? Hope or hopelessness? Love or hatred and self-pity? Those were the choices I faced. I would have been perfectly justified in choosing to hold on to my pain and resentments. After all, I had paid dearly for them. But, if I didn’t clear them they would have muddied and eventually eaten away at anything I might try to cover them with, corrupting and undermining my best efforts. My choices would have been severely limited and my palette restricted. I chose happiness, healing, joy and gladness. I chose gratitude over resentment—because I had been given the chance to have a beautiful life and share it with others.

The Skill

Once I had chosen my palette and my theme, I set about using them to clear and then to fill my life’s canvas. Forgiveness meant being willing to let go of hatred, resentment, anger, self-pity, clearing the slate, then filling the newly opened space with broad strokes of colour and letting the details dictate themselves as the universe unfolded and revealed them to me.

The thing about forgiveness is that it is a living creation and so has no end. It is never complete because each day, and sometimes each hour, it has its own shape and tone. No two people’s creation of forgiveness can be alike. You have your own choices to make. But knowing how to find the tools and raw materials is a big help. I have no regrets over my decision to choose forgiveness. It has brought me in contact with many others seeking to heal and move on, and filled my life with love! And so, I highly recommend giving forgiveness a try. It is worth the effort!

Peace and Love,

Sunny Jacobs

Infamous UK prisoner, Charles Bronson, drew this picture with a poem in response to Sunny's story:
“Happiness is a state mind dig deep and find. It’s somewhere deep inside. Don’t leave your heart behind. Deep within the blackest hole a rainbow in a dream. Reaching up to kiss the sky clouds of Devon cream.
A pure white dove passes by a tear drop falls from an eye. Another day another laugh happiness will never lie”.
By Charlie Bronson
Shaun Attwood


Anonymous said...

Barbaric, no other word for it. No better than a cartel execution. For a God-fearing, Bible-thumping society (in the main) I could never understand the neanderthal mentality of an 'eye for an eye'. how about 'thou shall not kill'?


Anonymous said...

This was harrowing to read but interesting to read. How many more are innocent and going through the same?


Anonymous said...

Very powerful; heart-rending story, brilliant writing.


Jon said...

So sad yet common in america

Anonymous said...

More common than people think!


Jon said...

How can people in the justice system be so evil

Anonymous said...

It's all about votes and popularity, which sucks major balls. That's the reality and these southern states loooove the DP!


Jon said...

its the state sanctioned murder of innocent people, how can they sleep at nights?

Anonymous said...

you're asking the wrong person! I have no idea how they sleep at night, they're all fuckwads as far as I'm concerned. How they wish for someone elses death is beyond me.


Duchess of Hackney said...

I've bookmarked to read later, but Sunny Jacobs miscarriage of justice is something I am familiar with.

I first heard of her a couple of years ago, while watching a made for TV movie of her ordeal called In The Blink of an Eye. As movies go, it's an ok film if you are having a quiet night in or an afternoon vegging on your sofa. Still, it's what lead me to research her story.

Her childhood friend friend, Micki Dickoff who was the driving force behind her release, directed the movie.

It usually comes out on one of those True movie channels in the UK, Sky 321/322 or the other one I can't remember. That's the equivalent to Life Time channel in the US.

Anonymous said...

What goes around, comes around.
If the perpetrators of these evils ever do meet their god, I hope he's forgiving. I'm afraid that the actions of these 'god-fearing' murderers make it impossible for me to follow a religion.