By Brian Pelan
Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle (above) are a very loving couple with a rare common bond. Each spent years on death row – she in the US, he in Ireland – before winning their freedom back. They now campaign for abolition of the death penalty and prison reform
The story of Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle is compelling and life-affirming. A true tale of surviving against all the odds.
In 1976, Sunny was placed on death row in Florida for the murder of two police officers. Four years later, in Dublin, Peter was sentenced to death for the murder of two officers of the Garda Síochána. He always denied any involvement in the crime and his conviction was overturned by the Republic’s High Court in 1995. Peter was one of the last people in Ireland to be sentenced to death in 1980. Capital punishment was abolished in 1990, with a constitutional ban on the death penalty introduced in 2002.
Sunny was 28 when her life changed. She was travelling with her boyfriend, Jesse Tafero, and her two children, Eric, nine, and Christina, 10 months. Their car had broken down in Florida and they were trying to get home to North Carolina. Someone Jesse knew, Walter Rhodes, agreed to drive them.
Sunny thought Rhodes was “creepy”. She fell asleep with the children in the back seat, but was startled awake by a policeman knocking on the window. The next thing she knew, chaos ensued and gunfire opened. She was arrested. Her children were taken away. Rhodes negotiated a plea bargain with the state, claiming Jesse and Sunny had pulled the triggers, in exchange for a life sentence.
Sunny was put in solitary confinement for five years, awaiting execution. Her cell was minuscule at 6ft by 9ft, and she spent days pacing back and forth. She began to practise yoga. Her sentence was eventually reduced to life, but Jesse was executed in horrific circumstances in 1990. The electric chair malfunctioned and it took him 13 and a half minutes to die.
After Jesse’s execution, Rhodes confessed he had fired the fatal shots; confirming both Jesse’s and Sunny’s long-maintained innocence. Sunny was freed in 1992. Sunny (now aged 68) and 77-year-old Peter met in 1998 when Sunny, who started campaigning against the death penalty soon after she was released, travelled to Ireland to speak at Amnesty International events.
Peter went to one of her talks in a pub in Galway. He was moved by her suffering, but also by the realisation that here was someone else who knew what it was like to be sentenced to death for something they hadn’t done.
The couple started to see each other on a regular basis and were eventually married in New York in 2011.
I spoke to Sunny and Peter, who live in a cottage in the Republic, about their lives now and how they are doing.
“In one word, wonderful,” said Peter. Sunny said: “It’s mystical where we live and when the sun is out it’s magical.” They regularly travel to give talks about the death penalty, social justice and human rights.
“We’ve recently been to Pennsylvania and Texas. And before that it was London, Birmingham, Bristol and Italy,” said Peter.
He believes that the present prison system in many countries is deeply flawed. “Scandinavian countries have the best of the prison systems that I know off, in that when a person is sent to prison the aim is rehabilitation not punishment, and the aim is to minimise the time a person spends in prison, not maximise it.
“So people, when they go to prison, they’re given the opportunity to work within the prison at normal working hours. “They’re paid the same amount of money they would receive in the outside world, and then if they have dependents, the money is taken out of the wages to maintain their dependents. “They’re treated as human beings and not as pariahs, and if the prisoner is prepared to make the effort then the authorities facilitate that and aim towards rehabilitating that person back into society at the earliest possible stage,” adds Peter.
I asked Sunny was she still angry about her conviction.
“I’m not angry any more,” she replied. “I thought I wasn’t angry when I first got out because I was so happy to get out, but I saw a video of myself speaking and it was of an angry woman. But I’ve left that anger behind because it doesn’t serve me, and it takes up a space inside me that could be filled with happiness, because there’s a choice that we make – we always have a choice – it’s important to get that across to everyone. When people are going into prison you have a choice always, so my choice was to replace anger with hope.”
• For more information about Sunny and Peter’s work, visit their website at www.sunnyandpeter.com, their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/sunnyandpeter/ or the Sunny Centre at www.thesunnycenter.com
• To read the latest issue of VIEW, go to http://viewdigital.org/2016/05/31/latest-issue-view-look-prisons-justice/