Wednesday 19 June 2019

Life after Death Row: How this couple escaped capital punishment and started again in rural Ireland

Jason Kennedy

Nestled in a warm home in the wilds of Connemara, Sunny Jacobs and her husband Peter Pringle could pass as any other older couple living the dream.

They have a view of the water from the living room window, some dogs and cats for company and family pictures scattered around the walls.

But, to put it mildly, American woman Sunny and Dublin-born Peter are unlike most other couples in the entire world. Both have escaped being put to death by their countries of birth.

“To put it very succinctly, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people,” said Sunny (69).

Sunny, along with her then husband Jesse Tafero, was sentenced to death by electric chair for the murder of two police officers in Florida.

“I spent the next five years on death row, which wasn't really a row for me at all, because I was the only woman with a sentence of death, so I was kept in solitary confinement in isolation for five years,” she said.

Irish exoneree Peter Pringle and his American wife Sunny Jacobs
Irish exoneree Peter Pringle and his American wife Sunny Jacobs

“I lost faith in everything I was ever taught to believe in - the justice system, society and God.”

Although Jacobs’ conviction was eventually overturned after spending 17 years in jail, it was too late for her husband, who was executed at the age of 43. Tafero’s execution went badly wrong, with witnesses having reported seeing flames coming from his scalp.

Not long after the botched execution, the man who killed the two policemen confessed his crimes, paving the way for Sunny’s release.

During her 17 years wrongfully spent in jail, Sunny devoted herself to meditation, yoga and prayer in an attempt to stay positive.

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
Sunny Jacobs: the most important thing she has learned from her ordeal is to live for the moment

“I chose to live my life as fully as I possibly could.”

After her release, Ms Jacob’s became a fervent anti-death penalty campaigner. She was set to travel to Ireland later in the ‘90s, where she was advised to meet a man called Peter Pringle. This recommendation was given by 'Galway Girl' singer Steve Earle.

She would later find that Peter’s story was strikingly familiar to hers.

Mr Pringle, from Portobello, spent 15 years in prison before his conviction for the murder of two gardai following a bank robbery in Roscommon was overturned.

Three men were seen in a getaway car, but only two were arrested at the time. Almost two weeks after the incident, Peter, who had a severe alcohol addiction at the time, was arrested and eventually convicted of murder.

Pringle, along with the two other men, was sentenced to hang for the crime. Although the last person to be put to death in Ireland was killed in 1954, Peter thoroughly believed he would meet the same end.

“I heard three jailers discussing what role they might have to play in my execution," he said.

“The conclusion they had come to was that when my body would go down through the gallows when I was hanged, there would be two jailers underneath, so each one would be obliged to pull on my leg to make sure my neck was broken.”

He had been sentenced to death in 1980 -- the last time the death sentence was invoked before it was removed from the statute books -- but this was commuted to life imprisonment. Mr Pringle, from Portobello, spent 15 years in prison before his conviction for the murder of a garda was quashed.

The third criminal who took part in the double murder was never caught and the two jailed killers, who have since been released, refused to name their accomplice.

Peter admits there are still people who believe he should be locked up for the crime, and that his past involvement in republican activities does not do anything to quash speculation.

“I don’t know what the political involvement [in the crime was], but what I do know is that as a young man I was interred in the Curragh as a republican,” he said.

“There are still a couple of people who speculate that I shouldn’t have been released. That goes and you have to expect that.

“My life is good and I don't hold any animosity towards anyone.”

Once released, Pringle was keen to continue his life out of the spotlight, but agreed to meet Jacobs in Galway.

“We met and became friends and then the friendship grew to more than friendship. We had a sort of a long term relationship for three years. Then, after 9/11 we decided that we would try to live together,” Pringle said.

“So we gave it a shot and Sunny reversed what her ancestors had done. She packed two big bags and came over to Ireland and has been with me since 2001. About five years ago we got married.”

Around a year ago, the couple set up a charity from their Galway home. Peter and Sunny are now welcoming fellow wrongly convicted people from around the world to stay at their house in order to reintroduce them to society.

Since the charity, called the Sunny Center, threw open its doors, a total of nine exonerees from around the world have stayed with the couple.

The charity which is registered in New York, allows these people to stay in the Connemara home, but they must follow a few rules.

“We don’t allow mood-altering substances, no alcohol or drugs and no violence,” Sunny says.

“The man who was supposed to be here now couldn't come, because he was successful in getting a job, which is a good thing,” Peter said.

“It’s very difficult to get work after coming out of Prison, especially in America.”

More information on the Sunny Center can be found on its official website.

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