Today, yoga teacher Sunny Jacobs is a smiley, sweet-voiced 63-year-old woman , who walks with a slight limp (the result of a car accident) and lives quietly in Ireland with her partner, a brood of dogs, cats, chickens and goats and a prolific vegetable garden. It’s a long way from the Florida jail where she spent 17 years for a crime she didn’t commit – five of them in solitary confinement on death row.
Sunny and her partner Peter came to stay with us this week – my world of yoga colliding with that of my husband, Piers, who is an expert on and campaigner against the death penalty. She was here to speak to young UK lawyers that Piers’s organisation, Amicus, trains to work as volunteers on death penalty cases in the USA.
The story she told was harrowing. As a young hippy mother of two she had followed her then husband Jesse Tafero in pursuit of what she called her “dream” of a happy family, even after discovering his dodgy past and criminal associations. “I wasn’t going to let that get in the way of my dream,” she says, mocking her own naivety and foolishness.
But in 1976, she, the kids, Jesse and an associate Walter Rhodes, were sleeping in their car when they were woken by two police officers pointing guns and telling them to get out. As Jesse and his associate got out of the car there was gunfire: Sunny dived on top of her children to protect them from the bullets. To this day she says she didn’t see who fired first but by the end both officers were dead and Rhodes went on the run taking Sunny and her family hostage.
They were eventually apprehended and, to Sunny’s amazement, she, Jesse and the children were taken into custody with Rhodes. “I kept thinking, as soon as I get a chance to explain to someone what really happened we’ll all be released,” she recalls; “this cannot happen.”
But by a perverse quirk of the US justice system, Sunny and Jesse were not released. Rhodes made a deal with prosecutors: he would testify against Sunny and Jesse in return for receiving three life sentences instead of the death penalty.
“It’s the guilty person who takes a plea bargain; the innocent person wants to prove their case,” says Sunny. Rhodes would escape the death penalty, but Sunny and Jesse would be sentenced to death; a hurt and angry police force would get two lives for the two officers lost.
A generation passed before Sunny’s lawyers, friends and volunteers were able to prove that no physical evidence connected she or Jesse with firing a gun, that lie detector evidence had been fabricated, and that witnesses had been pressured into giving false testimonies. When she was finally exonerated and released in 1992 her children had been raised in foster homes, her parents had died in a plane crash and Jesse had been sent to the electric chair, killed in a botched execution that shocked the world. Her now grown son stammered and had dropped out of society and her daughter, on finding how her father died, attempted suicide.
“The death penalty doesn’t happen to just one person,” she says. “It happens to their entire family and everyone who cares for them.”
One of the amazing things about Sunny’s story – and the one that for me connects a passion for justice with my great appreciation for yoga – is the transformation Sunny underwent while living on death row.
“For three months I was angry, confused and scared,” she recalls. “I couldn’t stand myself anymore. But I didn’t want to spend the rest of the life I had being angry, afraid and alone. I reckoned if there was no god and no justice it was hopeless and I couldn’t bring myself to believe it was hopeless.
“So I decided if there was a god, I was angry with him and we would have a discussion. I realised there was a spirit inside me and they couldn’t take that away; until they took my life, it was my own. I could actually use my time to do yoga and meditation to become physically, mentally and spiritually the best person I could be.”
What Sunny learnt through her yoga and meditation practice on death row got her through her 17 years in prison – and also through the experience of making a life for herself on her release.
She says: “I was able to show to the children whatever life does to you, you can pick yourself up and choose whether to live with your misery and suffering, to which you are entitled, or turn round and look forward to all the good things.
“You cannot leave your past behind; it follows you wherever you go – like your bum! But you can use it as a nice cushion.”
Sunny’s book about her experiences, Stolen Time, is available in paperback from Bantom Books, price £6.99.