Sonia Jacobs and Peter Pringle on Their Journey From Death Row to the Wedding Altar November 23, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice.
Tags: amy goodman, capital punishment, Criminal Justice, culture project, death penalty, death row, Democracy Now, nermeen shaikh, peter pringle, roger hollander, sonia jacobs, susan sarandon, the exonerated
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Sonia Jacobs and Peter Pringle each served years on death row — Jacobs here in the United States and Pringle in Ireland. Both were exonerated after their convictions were overturned for murders that they steadfastly maintained they did not commit. They began dating shortly after meeting while both publicly campaigning against the death penalty. Their wedding earlier this month was perhaps the first of its kind — the union of two exonerated death row inmates. Joining us from their home in Ireland, Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle recount their remarkable story from death row to the wedding altar.
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AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber announced yesterday that he would halt all executions in the state during his time in office. He said, “I refuse to be part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer.” Kitzhaber, a physician, noted that he had allowed two previous executions to go forward under his watch, but had since agonized over the decisions.
GOV. JOHN KITZHABER: Those were the most agonizing and difficult decisions I have ever made as governor, and I have revisited and questioned them over and over again for the past 14 years. I do not believe those executions made us safer. Certainly, I don’t believe they made us more noble as a society. And I simply cannot participate once again in something that I believe to be morally wrong.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was the Oregon Gov. Kitzhaber. In all, 34 states allow the death penalty, but only 27 have executed someone in the past decade, according to The Death Penalty Information Center.
AMY GOODMAN: In an oddly related story, I was reading the marriage section of New York Times this past weekend and saw a piece about the wedding of a couple in Manhattan earlier this month; Peter Pringle and Sonia Jacobs. Their photograph wasn’t that unusual. Perhaps they were older than most newlyweds, Sunny was 64, Peter 73, but it was a story of their lives and their coming together that we will spend the rest of our show on today. Both Sunny and Peter have survived the death penalty. They survived death row and have been exonerated since. Sonia Jacobs and Peter Pringle.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sonia Jacobs and Peter Pringle each served a decade and a half on death row; Jacobs in the U.S., Pringle in Ireland. Both gained freedom after their convictions were overturned for murders that they steadfastly maintained they did not commit. The two would both become passionate anti-death penalty activists and their activism brought them together.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Pringle was accused of participating in a murder of two police officers following a bank robbery in Ireland. After his conviction he was sentenced to death by hanging. Just days before a noose was to be tied around his neck, Peter learned Ireland’s president had commuted his sentence to 40 years without parole. He then immersed himself in legal text and effectively become a jailhouse lawyer. Serving as his own counsel, he eventually convinced the Court of Criminal Appeals to quash his conviction.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sonia, known as Sunny, was sentenced to death, along with her then husband, at the age of 28 for the alleged murder of two police officers in Florida. Her two young children were cast into the foster care system. Although the two maintained their innocence, it was after her husband was executed and another man confessed to the murder, that she was exonerated. Nearly 17 years after her arrest, Sunny’s conviction was overturned on appeal. She is the author of, Stolen Time: One Woman’s Inspiring Story as An Innocent Condemned To Death. Sunny’s story, along with those of five other wrongfully convicted death row inmates, became The Exonerated. Sunny has been portrayed by 28 actresses, including Mia Farrow, Brooke Shields, Amy Irving and Susan Sarandon, some of whom attended her wedding. This is Susan Sarandon playing Sunny in The Exonerated, reflecting on the murder charges leveled against her.
SUSAN SARANDON: My husband, Jesse, was tried first. He had a past record from when he was 17 years old and his trial lasted four days. We both had, of course, no good attorneys, no dream team, no expert witnesses. And so he was convicted and sentenced to death. My trial came later, and I thought, surely, that won’t happen to me. I mean, I was a hippie. I’m one of those peace and love people. I’m a vegetarian. How could you possibly think that I would kill someone? And so, I thought that I’d just—-I’d go in and they’d figure out I didn’t kill anyone and they’d let it go. but that’s not how it works.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Susan Sarandon playing Sonia Jacobs in the play The Exonerated, put on by The Culture Project, here in New York. Well, Sunny and Peter have since spoken in schools, churches, other venues across the country and the world on human rights and abolishing the death penalty. Their wedding earlier this month was perhaps the first of its kind, the union of two exonerated death row prisoners. And so we go to Galway, right now, to Ireland to be joined by the newly weds themselves, the former death row exonerees, modern day human rights activists, Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle. Sunny and Peter, congratulations on your wedding. Welcome to Democracy Now!. We’re going to talk about your activism today. But I want to start with Sunny. If you wouldn’t mind going back in time and telling your story, how it was you and your husband since executed, ended up on death row, your first husband.
SONIA JACOBS: Well, briefly, we were in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. And as a result, we ended up being present when two police officers were killed. And the man who actually did the killing took a plea bargain, which I do not think should be allowed in capital cases, which I don’t think should be allowed in capitol cases, and testified against us saying that we did it. He in turn was given three life sentences in exchange for his testimony. Jessie’s trial, as you know, took four days and he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. My trial took longer because I was a young mother of two children and had never been in trouble for anything violent in my life. Aside from his testimony, they also brought in a young woman who had been arrested for a drugs violation. And in order not to go to prison for a long time herself, she also testified. As a result of that, and the judge’s instructions to the jury, my jury voted for conviction. But, when it came to the sentencing phase of the trial, my jury, actually, was not able to be unanimous because one man held out for his own beliefs, rather than giving in to the pressure that was being put upon him to agree, and so my jury voted for life. The judge overruled the jury in my case and voted for—-and sentenced me to death.
AMY GOODMAN: The picture of what happened, the date that it happened, you were all driving in a car; you, your husband, Jesse, your two kids and the driver who eventually turned out to be the one that confessed. What happened? You were in Florida?
SONIA JACOBS: Yes, we were in Florida, and we were just getting a lift from one place to the other. And it got late with visiting here and there, and so we decided to pull off into a rest area on the interstate. I was asleep in the back with the children when the policeman came to do a routine check of the area, as I now know, and saw a gun between the driver’s feet, opened the door, took the gun, pulled him out, asked for his identification, called it in, and when they found out that he was on parole, that, of course, is a violation of parole, and then the scene turned ugly, and the shooting began. I ducked down to cover the children, and when I looked up, the policemen were dead and we were ordered into the police car by the man who had done the killing and driven away. So at that point, we basically had become hostages.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re both given life—-your both sentenced to death, you and Jesse. You’ve lost your children. Your children went where?
SONIA JACOBS: Well, at first, my children were held in custody. My daughter was only 10 months old at the time, and my son was 9 years old. It took my parents a couple of weeks to get my daughter. But. it took two months to get my son who was being held in the juvenile detention center in isolation because he was so young. And as a result, he was very traumatized. He was actually taken to hearings at night, handcuffed behind his back without any representation as a nine-year old boy. So when, finally, my parents were able to get a hold of him because the kind-hearted judge ordered him to be released, he developed a speech impediment and he had to be put in special school. From then on they lived with my parents, for the next six years, until my parents were killed in a plane crash, and then they went into care.
AMY GOODMAN: They went into foster care. So you wrote back and forth with your husband, Jesse, as you both sat on death row. How long were you on death row? How long were you in solitary? Explain what happened to Jesse?
SONIA JACOBS: Well, it’s interesting that you say that because, you see, the man had a death row, the women didn’t have a death row. At the time that I was convicted, I was the only woman the sentence of death in the U.S. because three years prior, they had stopped sentencing people to death. There was a sort of moratorium in the United States against using the death penalty. And so, there was, actually, no one on death row for a while. And then there were men on death row. But, as you know, murder is mostly a problem of men, not women. Women argue and smack each other, and men kill each other. And so, at the time, there were a few men on death row where Jesse was sent, but there were no women. So I was sent to the maximum security women’s prison in Florida and put into a unit all by myself, and I spent the next five years in solitary confinement.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sunny, you also talk about how it is that while you were in prison, you made your cell a kind of sanctuary. Can you talk about how you did that?
SONIA JACOBS: Yes. At first, when I was first sent to—-got my death sentence, I couldn’t really process it because. It just was beyond my imagining how it could even happen to me, no less, actually be a reality. And so my cell was very small. It was six steps from the door until the toilet. And if I reached out my arms to both sides, I could touch the walls. And all there was in the cell was a metal shelf on which there was a thin mattress and a pillow. And then there was a sink and toilet, and that’s all there was. There were no bars. There was a solid metal door. And the guards were under orders not to speak to me. And so, I just paced back and forth, mostly in anger and confusion, and truth be known, in fear, that they would actually kill me. I had no communication whatsoever with the outside world at first; no phone calls, no visits. I didn’t get out of my cell. It wasn’t 23 out of 24 hours a day in the cell, it was 24 hours in the cell, except for twice a week when I was taken out for a quick shower and was given some prison clothing and allowed to spend a few moments out in a courtyard with a guard, and then brought back into my cell again.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And during this time, actually, the guards were forbidden, even, from speaking to you?
SONIA JACOBS: And I had no books. Yes, yes, because if there were going to participate in my execution, they couldn’t see me as another human being and sympathize with me. I had to be less than human. And in order to do that, we couldn’t have conversations. Anyway, so I had a Bible and a law book. The law book was useless because I couldn’t even understand the language and the Bible, I considered it a book of wisdom at the time, because I wasn’t even sure there was a god anymore, because I could not imagine how God could let this happen to me and my whole family. Because it doesn’t just happen to one person, it happens to the entire family.
AMY GOODMAN: Sunny, I wanted to ask, after your parents were killed in that Pan Am…
SONIA JACOBS: I was going to finish answering your question about how I turned my cell into a sanctuary. I didn’t mean to take so long to get there, but I read something in the Bible that told me, that they don’t say when I die. And it was at that point that I realized that until they do end up taking my life or setting me free, which I thought would be the proper result, my life still belonged to me. And that it would be foolish of me to spend the rest of my life, be it long or be it short, in fear and anger and confusion. So, I decided that the cell could become my sanctuary, and instead of waiting to die, I could use my time to make myself the best person I could be. And so, that’s how I turned my cell into a sanctuary. I did yoga and meditation and I prayed and had my discussion with God. I ended up, I think, maybe healthier than when I went in, in some ways.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Sunny Jacobs, your parents die in the Pan Am Flight 759 in Kenner, Louisiana. You lose touch with your children who were then in foster care. You’re writing back and forth with your then husband Jesse Tafero. And on May 4, 1990, he was executed. How did you survive after that point, and then talk about how your case turned around.
SONIA JACOBS: Well, I think the worst day of my entire life was when my parents died in the plane crash, because then, not only did my children become orphans again, but I became an orphan too, and there was no one to look out for me outside. And if you’re in prison, and especially if you’re on death row, you need someone to hang onto you from outside. The day that Jesse was executed, we were given a 10 minute phone call to say goodbye, and we told each other that we loved each other until the phone went dead. And then the officer that had escorted me to the phone call gave me a few moments to myself, and then I asked if she would bring me back to my cell, and she did. Actually, because Jesse’s execution was so horrible and so gruesome, I think everyone was sympathetic that day. It was just so horrible.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: What happened, actually, Sunny, during his execution?
SONIA JACOBS: Well, you see, when Jesse was put in the electric chair and they pulled the switch, he didn’t die. Instead, his head caught fire. And they say, the witnesses that were there, say flames shot 2 feet in the air out of his head and smoke came out of the helmet. Instead of dying, he struggled against the restraints and they had to pull the lever three times before he was actually pronounced dead, and that it took thirteen and a half minutes for Jesse Tafero to die. And the reason was because they had substituted the natural sea sponge in the helmet, which was supposed to conduct the electricity properly, they switched it with for an artificial sponge, which didn’t conduct the electricity properly, and as a result, he caught fire. As his mother later said later, when Sister Helen Prejean was escorted her to the church that night, her son was burned at the stake. It was so horrible that where our daughter, who was then fifteen and a half years old, heard what happened to her father she tried to kill herself.
AMY GOODMAN: So, it was, what, two years later in 1992, nearly 17 years after you both were arrested, that the confession of the shooter was made and you were exonerated, though Jesse was killed?
SONIA JACOBS: Yes, about two and a half years after Jesse was executed, with the help of lawyers who worked for free, pro bono, and friends, one of whom you know, my friend Micki Dickoff who is a documentary filmmaker, because of their effort, we were able to uncover evidence that had been hidden for all those years, including the fact that the man who actually did the killing had confessed in front of other witnesses. As a result, I was then released.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break right now. When we come back, we’ll hear your new husband, your bridegroom’s story, Peter Pringle, and then hear about what the two of you are doing to gather as you continue to travel and speak out against the death penalty. Our guests are Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle. They are newlyweds, and they are both exonerees, they both survived death row. This is Democracy Now!, back in a minute.
STEVE EARLE: (Singing)
AMY GOODMAN: Steve Earle singing, “Christmas in Washington.” I’m Amy Goodman with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guests in Ireland are the newlyweds Peter Pringle and Sunny Jacobs. They got married in New York, flew home to Ireland, and are now telling us their story. Steve Earle, who we just played, was instrumental in the two of you coming together. But, Peter, before you tell us about Steve, tell us, if you would, your own story of how you ended up on death row and then free.
PETER PRINGLE: OK. Thank you. Very briefly, on July 7, 1980, there was a bank robbery in a town called Ballaghaderreen, in County Roscommon in Ireland, following which the escape car collided with a police car, there was an exchange of gunfire and two police officers were killed. The raiders split up, separated across country. One man was arrested that evening and another the following morning, and the third man was being pursued across country by the police. I had nothing whatever to do with it. I was in a different county in a different city at the time. The person they were chasing was chased right through the city where I was, which is the city where I am now, Galway, and he eluded them. So, they arrested me, fabricated evidence against me, and brought me before the Special Criminal Court in Dublin, which is a non-jury, politically established court, where I was convicted and sentenced to death. Upon the word of a police officer that after 43 hours of interrogation, I had uttered these words, “I know that you know I was involved, but on the advice of my solicitor, I am saying nothing and you have to prove it all away.” That is the sole evidence upon which I was convicted and sentenced to death. I should state that in the twelfth day of the trial—-the trial lasted for 34 days over six weeks, and in the twelfth day of the trial, a police officer who had attempted to arrest the culprit two days after the crime, had actually, was within arm’s reach of him and had spoken to him, but he ran away from him and escaped, he gave evidence in the trial and he was asked, had he seen the man again. He said he had, in fact, he was in the court. I was sitting in the dock. The police officer was asked to point out the man. He pointed up to a man standing in the back row of the public gallery and he said, that is him standing over there with his back to the partition. He pointed out the man in the public gallery. At which, the people standing beside this man all moved away from him. He was standing on his own like something you would see in a movie. But he was never stopped. He was allowed to leave the court, he wasn’t stopped or charged or anything else, and I was duly convicted. Sentenced to death. I spent six—-in Ireland, we didn’t have death row. I spent six months in the death cell, which would be the equivalent to deathwatch in the United States. My lawyers made an application for leave to appeal which put an automatic stay on the execution. The Court of Criminal Appeals refused that application for leave to appeal and set a new date for execution for the 8th of June, 1981. About 11 days before that, the President commuted the sentence on the advice of them and I was sentenced to forty years without any possibility of parole. I was put out into the prison population. I couldn’t possibly face forty years in prison and so I determined I would try to prove my innocence. I began to try and study law. In order to relax so I could ease my anger, my rage at what they had done to me, I began to teach myself the disciplines of yoga and meditation. It was those two disciplines that brought me through.
When, of course, Sunny and I met, we discovered we both used the same disciplines, 7,000 miles apart, without even knowing each other. That was another bond we had with each other. In January of 1992, I eventually opened my case in the high court in Dublin, on my own behalf, because I had no money and no lawyers, and I was escorted from the prison under armed escort and handcuffed, etc., and I offered my case there. In July of that year 1992, I won an order for discovery of the police papers in the case. Six months later when I got some of those documents, I found—-I was supplied with a photocopy of the notebook of the police officer who claimed I had made that statement. In his notebook, he had written in the alleged statement before his entry for the interrogation of which he claimed I said it. In any event, the case ran from January 1992 through to May 1995. Just before that, before that time in 1994, a human-rights lawyer offered me his help and I took it. In 1995 in May, the conviction was quashed by the Court of Criminal Appeal. The state asked for retrial. The court ordered a re-trial, I was sent back to prison on remand. The following day I was brought back to the Court of Criminal Appeal where I was given bail. A week later, the state dropped the case. So consequently, I received no compensation for damages whatsoever. When I was released on May 17, 1995, out of the Special Criminal Court onto the street, I had no money, I had no identification, no passport, no driving license, no Social Security number, no where to live, nothing. I didn’t even get my bus fare. But I had family and friends and they looked after me, and I survived.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Is it the case, Peter, that you were the last person who was sentenced to death in Ireland?
PETER PRINGLE: No, that’s not, actually. The media picked that one up. I was one of the last. There were—-let me see, now, there were I think three or four were sentenced to death after me. But all of those sentences were commuted as well.
SONIA JACOBS: But you were the only person who ever was released.
PETER PRINGLE: I was the only person in history of the state who got my conviction quashed, overturned, in a capital case. I did most of it on my own. I think I’m probably the only living person in Europe who has had his conviction overturned and released, had an exoneration from a death sentence. Three years after I came out of prison, and having gone through the difficulty of settling back into society—-which is very, very difficult—-I met with Steve Earle. Steve had been communicating with a man on death row in Texas named Jonathan Noble who asked Steve to witness his execution because he wanted one person there who didn’t hate him. Steve agreed to do that, and was so traumatized by what he saw, that he came back to Ireland to chill out a little and recover from that ordeal. While there, I was introduced to him. We exchanged our stories, we became friends. Consequently, when Sunny later was on the Journey of Hope, marching against the death penalty through Texas, people from the Irish section of Amnesty International were present and heard her speak. They invited her to come to Ireland the following year to speak at the annual general meeting of the Ireland section of Amnesty, which she agreed to. And then following on that, in Tennessee on another March, she met with Steve and told him she was coming to Ireland. He said to her, oh, you should talk to Peter Pringle, but he didn’t say why. When she got to Ireland the next year, and she spoke at a meeting in Dublin, somebody asked her if she’d spoken to me. She said, no. They gave her my number.
One day at home, I got a phone call from this American lady who said to me she wanted to speak to Peter Pringle. I said, that is me. She said she was Sunny Jacobs and was going to speak at a meeting in Galway the following Friday—-going to speak at a meeting the following Friday and if I wished to come along I was welcome. I asked her what she was going to speak about it she said, the death penalty. I said, well, yeah, I’m interested in that. At the time I was thinking, what does this woman know about the death penalty? So I went along anyway the following Friday with two friends. We were in the venue, which was a room over a pub at 1:00 in the day, and the people who had traveled with Sunny had gone to get lunch. But we, neither of us, like to eat before we speak about these matters in detail. So I was up in the room waiting for the event to happen when the door opened on the far side and this little lady walked in. I walked over to her and said, you must be Sunny Jacobs.
SONIA JACOBS: And I said, you must be Peter Pringle.
PETER PRINGLE: I heard her talk. I was mesmerized by her story. I was blown away by the horror of what had happened to her. I knew I had to speak with her again. I said that to her. But she told me she had to leave in an hour to go to court with Mary, who is the general secretary of Amnesty. So when she spoke to Mary, Mary was delighted I was going to take Sunny in charge and she transferred her back to me. A friend of mine in Galway loaned me his Mercedes car and packed us a lunch, a pack lunch.
SONIA JACOBS: A cheese lunch. We’re both vegetarians.
PETER PRINGLE: …at the time. And I drove her through Ireland and down to Cork, and as we were sitting in the car, in the car ferry crossing the river Shannon, she turned to me and she said, well, what is your interest in all this? And I said … this is the first time she had heard what my story was…and I said to her, I told her that I too had been sentenced to death and I had been exonerated. She said, and how did you get through? I said yoga and meditation. She said, wow, that is something, because that is what happened with her. So we traveled down, down to Cork together, sharing our story. At times laughing, at times crying, but very, very close with each other. She spoke at the meeting that evening. Amnesty booked us into a hotel, two separate rooms. We went over to the hotel and she came to my room and we sat down together. For three hours, we discussed forgiveness. And then she went back to her room. The following morning, I went off to…back home, to return the car. We kept in communication long distance. After 9/11, we decided that we really had to make a decision whether we were going to live together or not. Neither of us did not know if we could live with someone else because we have been on our own for so long. We opted for the west coast of Ireland. Sunny reversed what her ancestors did, she packed two bags, got rid of all her belongings in California and traveled back East and came to live with me in a little cottage by the sea on the west coast of Ireland. We live there now, a different cottage now, but we still live on the west coast of Ireland and we have a, we rent a little cottage with three and half acres. We have two dogs and two cats, a couple of hens, a couple of ducks, eight goats, and our garden. We grow our vegetables. We grow our potatoes. We have our eggs from our fowl. We milk the goats and she makes wonderful goat cheese. We try to be as self-sufficient as we can be, because of course we have no money. Neither of us got compensation. But we live a very good life there together.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet you decided to…you got married in New York, you were surrounded by—-of actually in your case, Sunny, the women who played you in The Exonerated like Brooke Shields and Marlo Thomas and Amy Irving. Talk about what you were just saying, Peter, when you are not on the west coast of Ireland, what you’re doing, in these last few minutes that we have.
PETER PRINGLE: What we do is we work with different human rights organizations like Amnesty, a group in London called Amicus, a wonderful group of people in Italy called The Community of Sant’Egidio…
SONIA JACOBS: The Journey of Hope in America.
PETER PRINGLE: The Journey of Hope.
SONIA JACOBS: The Seeds of Hope.
PETER PRINGLE: The Seeds of Hope is an Irish group in Ireland. But the Culture Project in New York was the not-for-profit theater organization that put on The Exonerated. The Culture Project, we knew that if…we could get married in New York very easy, and of course Sunny is a native of New York, so that kind of was nice, to do that. But we cannot afford to go to New York. We got a phone call from the Culture Project inviting us to come to their producers’ weekend to speak at that weekend and also for Sunny to present awards. So when they heard that we were looking to get married, they said, we will host your wedding. So that is what happened. They brought us to New York and put us up and hosted our wedding.
AMY GOODMAN: We have thirty seconds.
PETER PRINGLE: The Culture Project initiated a new award, which they called the Sunny award. They’ve given it out every year to people who shed a light, an artistic light, on injustice. And Sunny got the first award and she presented the other ones.
SONIA JACOBS: If I could just say one small thing, it’s that everyone out there can do their part. If you believe something is wrong, then do something about it whether it is write a letter, protest with a sign, go down to Wall Street and support them. Bring them sandwiches. Join an organization. Every person makes a difference. If you do something about what you believe, then it makes your life and everyone’s life better.
PETER PRINGLE: And if I may make a plug here, we each of us have a book written ready for any publisher who might be interested.
SONIA JACOBS: We need a publisher.
AMY GOODMAN: Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle—-
SONIA JACOBS: You have always been one of my heroes, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for joining us. Happy holiday to everyone.