Sonia Jacobs: Convicted despite gun residue on another suspect’s hands

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This story is the seventeenth in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.

Sonia Jacobs was the unusual case: a woman sentenced to death.

Jacobs was convicted of the murder of a Florida state trooper and a visiting Canadian constable at a rest stop outside Miami in 1976; she was on death row for nearly five years before the Florida state court ruled the judge had improperly imposed the death sentence even when the jury did not.

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Unrequited Innocence

She was then transferred off death row, but spent 11 more years serving consecutive sentences, even as the evidence against her wilted. Finally, after a federal appeals court ordered a new trial in 1992, Jacobs was released when, in return for her freedom, she did not contest her guilt.

There is no doubt that Jacobs was at the rest stop with her boyfriend, Jesse Tafero, and a friend of Tafero’s named Walter Rhodes Jr., when trooper Phillip Black, on routine patrol, approached the car in which they were traveling along with Jacobs’ children.

According to court records, Black learned on the police radio that Rhodes was a felon on parole, and ordered Rhodes to stand in front of the car while he ordered Jacobs and Tafero out of the vehicle. A scuffle ensued between Tafero and the officer, who pushed Tafero against the car, called for backup, and pulled his service revolver.

Sonia Jacobs

Andrew Lichtenstein

Sonia Jacobs

Gunfire erupted, killing both Black and his friend who was visiting, constable Donald Irwin.

As the two victims lay dead, the group took off, with Rhodes driving, but was stopped at a roadblock. Jacobs and Tafero said they had no choice but to flee with Rhodes after he shot the officers.

Tafero said as he scuffled with Black, Rhodes had fired the gun at first Black and then at Irwin. Tafero said that after Rhodes fired the shots he gave his gun to Tafero.

Rhodes had gunfire residue on his hands that suggested he had fired a gun.

Prosecutors made a deal with Rhodes, sparing him a death sentence in return for his testimony that he saw Jacobs, in the backseat, point a gun at the officers, and then Tafero grab the gun and fire.

Two truckers who saw the murders said they saw Rhodes standing in front of the parked car, but could not see who fired the shots. One trucker said he thought the initial shots came from the back seat.

Tafero and Jacobs went on trial separately, amidst significant publicity. Trial judge M. Daniel Futch Jr., who had a reputation for stiff sentences, presided over both trials.

The first jury convicted Tafero and sentenced him to death, with Rhodes the main witness.

Prosecutors had no physical evidence nor anything beyond Rhodes’s word that Jacobs had done anything. The case against her was bolstered by a jail cellmate who testified that Jacobs admitted shooting the officers.

The jury convicted Jacobs but recommended a life sentence; Futch overruled them and sentenced her, like her boyfriend, to death.

The evidence, weak from the start, soon became more dubious. After the conviction, the defense learned that the prosecutor had withheld the fact that Rhodes, the critical witness who had gunshot residue on his hands, had taken a polygraph examination, and what he told the examiner was in conflict with his testimony at trial.

On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court upheld Futch’s finding that Jacobs was not harmed by the withholding of the report. But the high court  overturned the death sentence, ruling Futch had overstepped his authority in rejecting the jury decision.

Since then, Rhodes gave two affidavits while in prison. In the first he said that “in the interest of justice and to purge myself before my creator” he was recanting. He said he got out of the car with a gun under his shirt, fired several shots that hit Black then turned and shot Irwin twice in the head when he saw that he was going for Black’s gun. Rhodes said the prosecutor had “coerced, threatened and cajoled” him to attribute the murders to Tafero and Jacobs.

In a second affidavit, Rhodes said he had been “the triggerman” and that “neither Tafero nor [Jacobs] participated in the shooting and had no prior knowledge that such would occur.” Several days later, in a sworn statement, he again said he alone killed the officers. He said that he came forward because he “felt extremely guilty… knowing that I put two people… on death row, for something they didn’t do, and I did.”

Rhodes later recanted his recantations, claiming he had been pressured by fellow inmates and offered money and sex to do so.

Jacobs’ cellmate also recanted, saying that she had been pressured to lie by prosecutors and had initially told authorities only that she had heard “jailhouse gossip” that Jacobs had confessed.

Further, a Los Angeles filmmaker who was a childhood friend of Jacobs helped gather forensic evidence that cast doubt whether it was physically possible for the truckers on the scene to have seen the shots fired.

A U.S. Court of Appeals panel reversed Jacobs’ conviction in 1992 and sent the case back for retrial. In October 1992, prosecutors gave Jacobs a choice: Remain in custody awaiting a retrial on murder charges; or enter a plea that neither admitted guilt nor contested that the prosecution had enough evidence to win a conviction.

Jacobs chose to enter the plea, and was released.

In 2011, she married Peter Pringle, who had been sentenced to death in Ireland for the murders of two police officers, before being fully exonerated in 1995 after 15 years in prison. The couple launched the Sunny Center, a not-for-profit sanctuary in Ireland for the wrongfully convicted.

Jacobs remains legally convicted of the two murders. Still, Tafero had even less luck.

Neither the Florida courts nor the federal courts granted his motions for a new trial, and in 1990 he was gruesomely executed in “Old Sparky,” Florida’s electric chair, convulsing as flames poured from his head.