In 1976, at just 28 years old, Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs and her partner, Jesse Tafero, were sentenced to death for the murders of two police officers in Broward County. While her sentence would later be commuted to life in prison, Tafero, the father of her child, was put to death in a botched electric chair execution in 1990 that resulted in flames coming from his head. Jacobs would later be released after Walter Rhodes, an acquaintance of Tefero's, confessed to shooting the officers and framing the couple in order to get a better sentence.
Theirs is just one of the stories recounted in Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s documentary play, The Exonerated, which tells the true stories of six former inmates who were wrongfully convicted of murder and placed on death row but later exonerated after serving years in prison. Almost 20 years after its initial, Off-Broadway premiere, the play will show at the Actor’s Rep in West Palm Beach this weekend. Taken from interviews, letters, and court transcripts of the six exonerees, the monologues provide a raw look at the failures of the criminal justice system from the perspective of people who were forced to serve justice for a crime they did not commit.
“Being that close to another human who is telling a story and not hearing a pin drop, you’re so fixated,” says Carole Blane, the actor who plays Jacobs in The Exonerated. Set on a stage devoid of theatrics and distracting stimuli, the stripped-down play forces its audience to absorb every word of the wrongfully accused's testimonies.
“I’ll just give you a moment to reflect," says Jacobs' character during one of her monologues. "From 1976 to 1992 — just remove that entire chunk from your life. And that’s what happened.”
The National Registry of Exonerations reports that there have been 2,420 exonerations nationwide since 1989, amounting to 21,292 years of freedom lost in total.
That doesn't sit well with Craig Trocino, the Director of Miami Law's Innocence Clinic. Trocino will be a guest speaker after each performance of The Exonerated.
“It’s better for ten guilty men to go free than [for] one innocent man to go to jail,” he says, loosely quoting 18th Century English judge William Blackstone. “Our justice system is predicated on the idea that the presumption of innocence and proof without a shadow of doubt should secure... that the system doesn’t make mistakes and that innocent people aren’t in prison for something they didn’t do, but we know now that this is something that does indeed happen and with some alarming frequency.”
As a part of the Innocence Network, Trocino and the Innocence Clinic have worked for more than 20 years in post-conviction litigation, identifying and exonerating the wrongfully convicted in Florida. The clinic is now working to overturn the 2002 conviction of Jerome Hill, who is serving a life sentence for armed burglary. The Innocence Network says its investigation determined that Hill’s court-appointed lawyer allegedly blundered his defense after failing to call a witness to testify on Hill’s behalf in 2002. In a 2016 evidentiary hearing, the witness’s testimony was heard and found credible by the judge, but because they could not prove that the then-lawyer inadequately represented Hill, he was denied a retrial. Hill was 22 when he was arrested and has spent the last 17 years in prison.
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“It’s those ‘technicalities’ that prevent both extensively and verifiably innocent people [from] getting relief,” Trocino says. "And this happens day in and day out in courts all across the country, because once you get convicted you are presumed guilty [and] establishing your innocence is a Herculean task.”
Today, Sunny Jacobs is married to Peter Pringle, who was also wrongfully convicted and served 15 years for the murder of two police officers in Ireland. Since regaining her freedom, Jacobs has campaigned against the death penalty and rallied for criminal justice reform. But mostly, says Blane, the exonerated are looking to peacefully readjust to life on the outside.
“These people had lives, potential, and then this thing happened to them,” says Blane. “It’s not about being felt sorry for or being victimized, it’s real stories. The people being portrayed just want to tell their story.”
The Exonerated. 8 p.m. Friday, May 10 and Saturday, May 11 at Actor’s Rep Theatre, 1000 N. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach. Tickets are available via actorsrep.org. Admission costs $25 for adults and $10 for students. Discounts are available for groups of ten or more.