Stolen Time: One Woman's Inspiring Story as an Innocent Condemned to Death

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 12:00am

Stolen Time: One Woman's Inspiring Story as an Innocent Condemned to Death

by Sunny Jacobs

Doubleday, HK$247

Love is blind, says Florida death row survivor Sunny Jacobs. This is now known to be true because brain circuits responsible for critical social assessment and negative emotions are literally switched off when you fall for someone.

Rarely can a nicer person have fallen for a dodgier man than Jesse Tafero, the true-life antihero at the heart of Stolen Time. To snare Jacobs, the 'lean and hungry' ex-con lured her then-boyfriend into cocaine, provoking estrangement between the couple. Tafero then seduced her, becoming her common-law husband.

One night in 1976 after their car broke down, the pair and their children were taking a lift with one of Tafero's ex-con friends, Walter Rhodes. In the small hours after the group had pulled over for a nap, trooper Phillip Black and visiting Canadian Constable Donald Irwin stopped for a routine check. Rhodes flipped. 'The sudden blast of gunfire erupted,' Jacobs writes, 'filling the world with deafening force.'

Both officers died. The next thing the hippie vegetarian knew, despite expecting to be treated like a victim, she was branded a 'cop killer' and was in jail with three policemen outside her cell. 'They could beat me to death and I could scream my head off and no one would know ... They could try to hang me from the fluorescent light. They could drown me in the bathroom.' When they entered, they were unarmed 'except for the hatred in their eyes'.

The police didn't harm her, but prejudice earned her five years in solitary confinement on death row, where she changed her name from Sunny to Sonia and, hearing other inmates' cries, learned that an anguished human only ever screams for 20 minutes before giving up.

Deprived of a clock or calendar, Jacobs had no sense of day or night. To stay strong, she drank her breast milk and did pushups. In 1981, after appeals cut her sentence to life, she celebrated by teaching yoga and indulging in an abortive spot of gardening and a lesbian fling. Meanwhile, her two children grew up. But tragedy loomed.

First, mirroring a dream Jacobs had, her vacation-bound parents died in a plane crash, removing 'the buffer of a generation'. Then, after Tafero and his mother had licked the tears from each other's faces, he was 'fried' in a botched execution. 'Flames two feet high shooting out of the top of his head, smoke coming from his ears, and his heart was still beating and his chest heaved for fifteen minutes after the first of the three jolts it took to finally cook the life out of his body,' Jacobs writes.

A reporter who witnessed it was haunted by nightmares. The couple's daughter tried to jump off the balcony of her Disney World room. For the author, there was no escape either. Despite Rhodes confessing to his crime in 1979, Jacobs wasn't freed until 1992, when she was 45, after an appeal court received proof of falsified testimony.

No wonder she mistrusts the legal system. In court, presumption of innocence 'is all well and good in theory but, in fact, at trial every-body believes you must have done something wrong if you are up there in the defendant's chair', she writes.

In the light of the lack of evidence against Jacobs, the question is why the state of Florida didn't let her out sooner. 'From a political perspective, they could not and would not concede that a mistake had been made,' she writes. Had Florida owned up, she could have sued, she adds.

Jacobs refuses to brood, though, expressing no hatred towards Rhodes, the real villain. It seems mean to dwell on how her incredible story could have been cut by a third - many recounted letters and author epigrams add little to the account. The only truly questionable aspect of the book is the lack of focus on the murdered policemen. We learn little about who they were and the consequences of their deaths for their relatives.



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