10 Innocent People Who Were Executed, Part Five

Jesse Tafero

executed in 1990

Jesse-Tafero
Jesse Tafero

On the morning of February 20, 1976, Highway Patrol officer, Phillip Black, and Donald Irwin, approached a car parked at a rest stop for a routine check.

Tafero, his partner Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs, and Walter Rhodes were found asleep inside. Black saw a gun lying on the floor inside the car so he woke the occupants and had them come out of the car.

After Black learned via radio that Rhodes had a criminal record, gunfire broke out. Black and Irwin were slain, and the group sped off in the Black’s patrol car, driven by Rhodes.

According to Rhodes, Tafero then shot both Black and Irwin with the gun, which was illegally registered to Jacobs, led the others into the police car and fled the scene.

All three were arrested after being caught in a roadblock. The gun was found in Tafero’s waistband.

Jacobs and Tafero maintained from the beginning that Rhodes had shot the officers, and that they had no choice but to go along with him after the shooting. Although there were two eyewitnesses to events surrounding the murders, neither contradicted Jacobs’ and Tafero’s version of what happened.

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Walter Rhodes

Nor was their version contradicted by physical evidence. Both Tafero and Rhodes had gunpowder residue on their hands, a fact that was consistent with Tafero’s claim that Rhodes handed him the gun after shooting the officers. There was no gunpowder residue on Jacobs’ hands.

At their trial, Rhodes testified that Tafero and Jacobs were solely responsible for the murders. Tafero and Jacobs were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death while Rhodes was sentenced to 3 life sentences.

This is a classic maneuver for police and prosecutors. The strategy involves encouraging one member of a suspected group to testify against the others, in exchange for reduced charges. In some cases obviously guilty people are set free because they agree to testify against other suspects.

Rhodes was eventually released in 1994 following parole for good behavior.

In this case it seems as if police and prosecutors got it terribly wrong, offering a life sentence to Rhodes in exchange for his testimony. It appears that Rhodes may have been the only guilty member of the group, and he used his offer to secure convictions against Tafero and Jacobs.

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Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs

Because the jury had recommended a life sentence for Jacobs, the court commuted Jacobs’ sentence to life in prison, but not Tafero’s.

She was later released after agreeing to a plea bargain. Prior to his release, Rhodes confessed several times to lying about his involvement in the shooting.

Even Sunny Jacobs claimed that Rhodes, not Tafero, carried out the shooting as well. Rhodes was the only person on which traces of gunpowder were found.

The evidence of the killing pointed directly, and only, at Rhodes. Nevertheless, prosecutors sought and won a death sentence for Tafero, a victim of the lies of his friend and the zealous opportunism of prosecutors and police.

After all, three convictions in a police killing is better than one. This appears to be the most likely reason for this travesty of justice. Seeking and winning more time behind bars for more defendants feeds the thirst for revenge by police who were angered by the killing of one of their own. It was, in essence, tribal in its motivation.

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Hon. M. Daniel Futch, Jr.

The trials were surrounded by massive publicity, which was overwhelmingly prejudicial. All prospective jurors acknowledged knowing about the case, and neither jury was sequestered. The jury in the Jacobs case recommended a life sentence, but Judge M. Daniel Futch, Jr. imposed death, as he had done earlier in the Tafero case.

Futch, known as “Maximum Dan,” was a former Florida Highway Patrol trooper who kept a miniature replica of an electric chair on his desk.

It is an obvious conflict of interest for a former highway patrolman to act a a judge in a murder case involving a highway patrolman, especially when that judge is famous for giving severe, often maximum, sentences. Nevertheless this case saw just such a conflict play out, with the wishes of the jury for life sentences for the convicted overruled by the judge and death sentences handed down.

The Florida State Supreme Court would eventually find that Fuchs had no reason to over ride the jury determination, and would release Jacobs.

Walter Rhodes, after his parole for good behavior, would flee Florida, and eventually be arrested in Oregon for violating the conditions of his release.

One of the key witnesses against Jacobs admitted to lying under oath after the police in Broward County threatened her. Before she agreed to testify, detectives had warned her that she might “make an enemy” of the Broward County State Attorney if she refused to testify against Jacobs.

Tafero was not as lucky, unfortunately.

He was at best, an innocent bystander and at worst someone who was unable to stop Rhodes because of Rhodes violent past and his possession of the gun used to kill the officers. Tafero nevertheless remained on Death Row, as his conviction was not overturned by the decision in the Jacobs case.

Tafero was executed by electric chair on May 4, 1990.

The chair malfunctioned causing the process to take over 13 minutes.

Officials interrupted the execution three times because flames and smoke shot out of his head. During the first interruption, he continued to move and breathe.

Tafero’s botched execution, and several similarly macabre ones, prompted Florida finally to abandon its electric chair in favor of death by lethal injection in 2000. Although the prosecution continued to maintain that Tafero was guilty, the evidence strongly suggested otherwise.


[1] http://www.law.northwestern.edu/legalclinic/wrongfulconvictions/exonerations/fl/sonia-jacobs.html

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Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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