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Monday 25 July 2022

University of Brighton Honours Justice Campaigner Once Wrongfully Convicted & Sentenced To Death

Sunny Jacobs is to receive an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Brighton on 26 July, in recognition of her major contribution to the rehabilitation and reintegration of those who have been wrongfully convicted of serious crimes. 

She has been a tireless campaigner for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide for over 20 years - having been sentenced to death herself in the United States.

In 1976, Sunny Jacobs and her partner Jesse Tafero were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer in Florida USA. 

As the only woman in America at the time facing execution, Sunny was held in solitary confinement for nearly 5 years, before having her death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. 

Tafero, however, was put to death in the electric chair in 1990 in a horrifically botched execution.

In 1992, Jacobs was finally released from prison based on evidence that would also have exonerated Tafero. 

During her long years in custody for a crime she did not commit, Sunny also lost both her parents in a plane crash, as well as missing crucial years of her children's childhood. 

Her life as a campaigner began in 1998 when Jacobs was speaking in Ireland with Amnesty International for the abolition of the death penalty, and met Peter Pringle - who had himself been wrongfully convicted and spent 15 years in prison in Ireland.


As a couple, they have established the Sunny Centre in Connemara in Ireland, where they work to rehabilitate those who have been wrongfully convicted. 

Their work spotlights shocking facets of the criminal (in)justice system, including the way people released having been wrongfully convicted receive no assistance from the state – assistance which is available to those released after serving a sentence for crimes they did commit.

In her Honorary degree acceptance speech to graduating law students at University of Brighton, Jacobs says: 

"You are people who have not yet normalised the injustices of the system in which you will be working. 

"That is why I can say that, even though I have had to live through, and live with, the effects of many deep losses and traumas in my life as a result of a wrongful conviction... I can say I wouldn't change it.

"All put together, those experiences enabled me to be here today to encourage you, whether you become a public defender or a prosecutor or a corporate lawyer, to do what's right. 

"In the end, all you have is your integrity. That's all I had when I went into prison; that's all I had when I left prison; and that's all I have now, in the latter years of my life."  

In her acceptance speech, Jacobs also speaks of how she turned around her own feelings in the face of a terrible - and seemingly hopeless - situation. 

"Justice doesn't begin in the court room; justice begins in your heart. And then it travels to your brain and it is spread to your actions and your words.... When I was sentenced to death and put in solitary confinement... all I was told that was where I was to wait for them to decide when to take my life. And they had all the power and I had none, so I had to believe them."

"But, one day I realised that, until they realised that they made a mistake, and sent me home to my two young children - or they did take my life - my life still belonged to me, and I could decide what happened inside of me. That's where you live. 

"It doesn't matter where you are or who you're with. It matters what happens inside."

"So, I proceeded to turn my cell into a sanctuary in order to do my spiritual work in the time that I had left. Be it long or be it short. 

"For me that meant doing yoga, meditation and prayer. It meant being true to myself, regardless of what anyone else said or didn't say, or did or didn't do. 

"So that, in the end, whether they did take my life or realise they made a mistake and sent me home to my children, I wouldn't be a bitter, miserable, broken and beaten human being." 

Sunny Jacobs has pioneered a caring approach to assist those who have been exonerated try to deal with their trauma and reintegrate into society. 

Approaches include yoga and meditation to tackle spiritual harm, allied to crucial assistance with the practicalities facing those who have just been released from prison, such as possible civil lawsuits, housing, welfare, health and education issues.

Sunny is active in educating law students about wrongful convictions, including speaking at University of Brighton in 2015. 

She and Peter are also heavily involved in Amicus and the worldwide networks of Innocence Projects.

Jacobs has published a book based on her time in prison - Stolen Time – which provided the inspiration for the film The Exonerated, with Susan Sarandon playing her role. 

Sunny continues to work tirelessly to highlight the prevalence of wrongful convictions and the difficulties facing those who are subsequently released.

by: Mike Cobley




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