Monday 5 December 2016

Sunny side up

Sunny Jacobs spent 17 years in jail for a double murder she didn't commit. Now she's opened up her Connemara home to other victims of miscarriages of justice. We spoke to the woman who wouldn't let the past win

Published 19/06/2015 | 02:30

Sunny Jacobs: 'When we first get out of jail, we pretend everything's is ok'. Photo: Ray Ryan
Sunny Jacobs: 'When we first get out of jail, we pretend everything's is ok'. Photo: Ray Ryan

Surveying the rugged green expanse that swaddles her Connemara sanctuary, Sunny Jacobs can scarcely believe she once existed in a suffocating 6ft by 9ft cell.

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With 15 unfettered acres of Connacht countryside to call home, freedom is not something that is in short supply for the 67-year-old death row survivor or her husband Peter Pringle, who once also faced death by hanging.

"Ireland is home," says Sunny, who settled about as close to her native Queens as you can get this side of the Atlantic. "The west of Ireland is a really special place, not just in Ireland, but the world, it really is."

More than two decades after walking free from Broward Correctional Institution in Florida an innocent woman, today Sunny is busy preparing to receive her first guest at the newly opened Sunny Center - spelt the American way, she jokes - at the couple's home in Galway.

Perched on a hillside overlooking a lake, the voluntary centre, as her neighbours are sure to spell it, welcomes other wrongfully convicted people from around the world as they try to readjust to life on the outside.

"It's really for respite and recovery from, not only the ordeal of being wrongfully convicted and locked up, and losing your whole life and everything, but trying to get it back," explains Sunny, who spent 17 years incarcerated for a double murder she didn't commit.

"Most, but not all of the guests, will come from America, although we're open to anyone who's suffered that sort of injustice from anywhere in the world.

"They let you out and you don't get anything," she continues. "It's very, very difficult.

"For the large majority, there's no compensation whatsoever, so they come out, they've lost contact with family, there's no where to go, no way to make a living so often they end up homeless or taking drugs and alcohol for solace.

"If we can get them away from their original environment and let them adjust and heal a bit, and figure out who they want to be, they have a better chance at success [when] they go back, and for a happy, new life."

Starting over, needless to say, is something that grandmum Sunny and her husband of four years know all about. Back in 1976, when she was a 28-year-old mum-of-two, Sunny and her boyfriend Jesse Tafero were condemned to death for the murder of two policemen following a roadside shooting, while the real killer, Walter Rhodes - who later confessed to pulling the trigger after Tafero was executed - struck a plea bargain with the state.

Four years later, back in Dublin, 41-year-old fisherman and father-of-four Peter Pringle was also wrongfully convicted of the murder of two gardai, Henry Byrne and John Morley, killed during a bank robbery, becoming one of the last people in Ireland to be sentenced to death in 1980.

Both were exonerated in 1992, before finding each other in another incredible twist of fate six years later.

"It's not something you want to talk about all the time," tells Sunny, who previously welcomed exonerees to their two-bedroom cottage in Galway before founding The Sunny Center.

"With the people that come here for healing, it's healing for us too because it allows us to use what happened to us for good purpose.

"When [exonerees] first get out, we pretend everything's ok. The men do this bravado thing; they dress up as fancy as they can, and they act like everything's ok, but it's not ok. Many of the women were wrongly convicted of something to do with a child and, as a result, when they go back home, which isn't home anymore, they're reviled.

"At first, I kind of got scooped up by the anti-death penalty movement," recalls the yoga teacher and human rights activist, "and I was happy to do that work. But I realised after a while that it really wasn't helping me.

"I'd always thought of myself as a survivor; they would always kind of wheel me out as this poor victim of injustice, and I started seeing myself as a victim.

"It was very depressing. All I was was my story - I wasn't a human being trying to start a new life.

"So I left the movement for a while to concentrate on making a life for myself, not as somebody's victim, but as an independent human being in this new modern world, and then I went back to it on my own terms."

After almost two decades in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, mobile phones and "magic money" were just two of the mod cons Sunny remembers having to get used to when she was finally freed on appeal aged 45.

"The best thing was the ATM machine," she laughs. "That was the most amazing thing I ever saw. You just put a card in the wall and it spits money out at you - I couldn't get over it!"

It was at a rally in Tennessee that country star and fellow philanthropist Steve Earle told Sunny that she should look up a guy called Peter Pringle if she ever made it to the Emerald Isle.

She did eventually get to Ireland in 1998, but didn't look up the "potato chips" guy. Yet when she saw a hulking figure hunched over, sobbing in the front row of a talk she was giving in a pub in Galway, Sunny knew it was fate.

On Sunday, Sunny will take to Wonderlust stage at Body and Soul arts and music festival at Ballinlough Castle in County Westmeath to speak about her experience.

Two-and-a-half decades since capital punishment was abolished in Ireland, and just weeks since Nebraska became the 19th state to abolish the death penalty, now she's hoping to see an end to death row altogether in her lifetime - just as Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center predicted recently.

"I do think that he's correct," she agrees, "that in the next 20 years we will see the abolition of the death penalty in America. In twenty years, I'll be 87, so I might just make it - I hope so.

"Body and Soul is a great venue for it because we would reach a lot of young people who wouldn't maybe normally be interested in such a serious subject that seems so remote from their experience," continues Sunny. "It's a very interesting time [in the anti-death penalty movement] right now.

"There's more movement than there has been in the last few decades, so I think it's a subject whose time has come."

In the meantime, The Sunny Center co-founder, famously portrayed by Susan Sarandon in 2005 TV movie, The Exonerated, says she's determined to leave that label behind.

"Most of the people who are exonerated, that's their life," says Sunny. "They're the exonerated person, and they'd like to be able to just be a regular person.

"I guess I'm lucky because it doesn't haunt me. I'm sort of an open book and that's very freeing.

"I know that people are aware of [it], but I think I've become more than that through the years. I think I'm known more for my human rights work and yoga and the healing work that we try to do.

"You can't possibly be the same person [as before]," she admits. "[People] actually palpably hate you because they think that you did this terrible thing.

"It's almost as if they really did kill that young woman because by the time I came out that woman was changed. Although I guess at a basic level, you always are who you are."

www.thesunnycenter.com

Irish Independent

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