Tafero (October 12,
1946 - May 4, 1990), was executed in the state of Florida for the
murders of Phillip Black and Donald Irwin.
The crime, trial, and execution
On the morning of
February 20, 1976, Florida highway patrolman Phillip Black and
visiting Canadian constable friend Donald Irwin approached a car
parked at a rest stop for a routine check. Tafero, Sonia Jacobs,
their two children (ages 9 years, and 10 months), and Walter
Rhodes were found asleep inside.
Black saw a gun
lying on the floor inside the car. He woke the occupants and had
first Rhodes then Tafero come out of the car. Then, both Black and
the Irwin were shot by Rhodes and Rhodes forced Jacobs, Tafero, and
their children into the police car, fleeing the scene. They
kidnapped a man and stole his car. All three were arrested after
being caught in a roadblock.
In order to
receive a lesser charge himself, at their trial, Rhodes (who had
been the only one to test positive for gunpowder residue)
testified that Tafero and Jacobs were solely responsible for the
murder. Tafero and Jacobs were charged, tried, and wrongly convicted
with capital murder. Tafero and Jacobs were sentenced to death while
Rhodes was sentenced to a life sentence, from which he was released
early for good behavior.
Tafero and Jacobs
children were placed in the care of Jacobs' parents until her
parents were killed in a plane crash in 1982. The children were then
separated, live with relatives and family friends, where they grew
to be strangers to Tafero and Jacobs.
Tafero and Jacobs
continued their relationship through letters while serving time in
the prison. They learned some Japanese and that way were able to
continue their sex life without bringing the attention of the guards
who read their mail.
Circa 1982, Rhodes
recanted his previous statement and confessed that it was he, NOT
Tafero or Jacobs, that had pulled the trigger and killed the two
police men. This and other evidence prompted courts to commute
Jacobs' sentence to life in prison but Tafero was not granted the
In May of 1990,
eight years after Rhodes confessed that Tafero was innocent, the
state of Florida killed Jesse Tafero. During Tafero's execution, the
electric chair he was executed in, Old Sparky, malfunctioned,
causing six-inch flames to shoot out of his head. Three jolts of
electricity were required to pronounce Tafero dead. It took him 13
1/2 minutes to die.
Tafero's was the
execution heard round the world because of it's unusually brutal
circumstances. Death penalty opponents cite Tafero's execution as
particularly cruel, saying it violated Tafero's right to be free
from cruel and unusual punishment.
The eleventh U.S.
Circuit Court found evidence compelling enough to overturn the
conviction of co-defendant Sonia Jacobs. She was released after
accepting a plea bargain. After her release, she reaffirmed her
with her children and became outspoken against the death penalty.
She remarried and now teaches yoga.
Jesse J. TAFERO
On May 4, 1990, the State of
Florida, with the acquiescence of the federal government, executed
Jesse J. Tafero in the electric chair. The state and federal
governments failed to ensure Tafero's right to a fair and impartial
trial and right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. The
unfair trial resulted in Tafero's execution.
Early on the
morning of February 20, 1976, a Florida highway patrolman and his
friend, a visiting Canadian constable, approached a car parked at a
rest stop for a routine check.
Jesse Tafero, Sonia Jacobs, their two
children, and Walter Rhodes, a prison friend of Tafero's, were
asleep in the car. Allegedly, the patrolman saw a gun on the floor
of the car. He woke the occupants and had Rhodes and then Tafero get
out of the car. At some point after that, both the patrolman and the
constable were shot.
After fleeing the scene in the patrolman's car,
and then dumping the car, kidnapping a man, and stealing his car,
the three were caught at a roadblock.
Rhodes, Tafero, and Jacobs
were all arrested. Rhodes turned state's evidence in exchange for a
plea to a lesser charge. Tafero and Jacobs were tried and convicted
of capital murder.
was convicted and sentenced to death largely on the testimony of
one co-defendant, Walter Rhodes, who named Tafero as the shooter.
In exchange for
his testimony, Rhodes was allowed to plead guilty to second-degree
murder, and avoid the death penalty.
justified Rhodes's plea bargain based on a polygraph test he
alleged Rhodes had passed.
The summary of
Rhodes's polygraph test was withheld from the defense by the
In a legal
challenge by Tafero's other co-defendant, Sonia Jacobs, a
federal appeals court found that withholding the polygraph test
his testimony on three separate occasions – in 1977, 1979, and
1982 – stating that he, not Tafero, shot the policemen.
Ultimately, Rhodes reverted to his original testimony.
were performed by the state. A federal appeals court confirmed
that the test results indicated that Rhodes was the only one to
have fired a gun.
At both his
trial and his sentencing hearing, Tafero's lawyer failed to call
or question any witnesses on Tafero's behalf.
eyewitnesses, who were testifying for the state, said that while
the shots were being fired, one officer was holding Tafero over
the hood of the car.
The judge was a
former highway patrolman, who had only retired from the police
force three years prior to the trial. He wore his police hat to
work as a judge. He did not allow Tafero to call witnesses and
would not allow him hearings on this decision.
The jury in the
trial was un-sequestered.
co-defendant, Sonia Jacobs, was likewise convicted of capital
murder on the basis of Rhodes's testimony. After Tafero's
execution, evidence that had been suppressed by the state, which
pointed to both Jacobs's and Tafero's innocence, was discovered.
Jacobs's conviction was eventually overturned.
trial lawyer was subsequently convicted of bribing a jury and
sent to prison.
was convicted largely on the basis of co-defendant Walter Rhodes's
testimony that Tafero had shot both officers. A jailhouse informant
also testified against Tafero. Rhodes was allowed to plead guilty to
a lesser charge in exchange for his testimony against his two co-defendants,
Tafero and Jacobs, who were each tried separately.
maintained that Rhodes had passed a polygraph test and thus a plea
bargain was justified. Evidence discovered after the trial showed
that Rhodes had not passed the polygraph test and that the state had
suppressed the results of the test, which contained statements
contradicting Rhodes's trial testimony.
Rhodes recanted his
testimony on three separate occasions – in 1977, 1979 and 1982 –
stating that he, not Tafero, shot the policemen. Ultimately, Rhodes
reverted to his original testimony. A statement from a prison guard
corroborating Rhodes' recantations was also suppressed and found
tests indicated that one gun shot both policemen. Ballistic tests
also showed that Rhodes definitely had fired a gun and that Tafero
might have fired a gun or might have simply handled a gun after it
was fired. The later scenario corroborated Tafero's account that
Rhodes had shot the policemen and then handed Tafero the gun so that
he could drive the car. Rhodes was driving the car when it was
finally stopped during a shoot-out at a police roadblock.
At the trial, one eyewitness
testified that he saw a man in brown, Tafero, spread eagle on the
hood of the police car when the shots were fired. A second
eyewitness testified that he saw a man in blue, Rhodes, move from
the front of the car to the rear just before the shooting. Neither
witness could identify which man was the shooter.
Tafero's conviction was
affirmed on June 11, 1981. A motion for error coram nobis
failed in 1983. In 1988, the Florida Supreme Court denied state
habeas relief. Other state appeals were also denied in 1984,
1987, and 1990. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the
case twice, in 1986 and 1989, and affirmed the conviction.
Jacobs' 1992 appeal, evidence of the suppressed polygraph test, the
prison guard's suppressed statement, and a physical re-creation of
the crime scene presented a convincing scenario that Rhodes was the
sole shooter. The new evidence resulted in the reversal of Jacobs'
conviction. Had the evidence been found prior to Tafero's execution,
it is highly probable that his conviction would have been likewise
Jesse Tafero was executed in
Florida's electric chair. During the execution, Tafero's head seemed
to catch on fire. Flames and smoke were seen shooting out of his
head, causing the state to interrupt the electric current three
times. Witnesses to the execution claimed that Tafero continued to
breathe and move after the first charge was interrupted. The state's
execution was particularly cruel, and it served as a final violation
of Tafero's right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.
Tafero was executed despite evidence of his innocence that was
finally heard by a United States court, but only after Tafero was
executed. The Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court found evidence compelling
enough to overturn the conviction of Tafero's co-defendant, Sonia
Jacobs – a conviction based almost entirely on the evidence used to
convict Tafero. Jacobs later accepted a plea bargain and was
released. Immediately upon release, she reaffirmed her innocence.
Both state and federal courts failed to protect Tafero's right to a
fair trial. The state's suppression of evidence that was favorable
to Tafero's defense and that corroborated his claim of innocence
violated Tafero's constitutional and international human rights. The
initial violation was compounded by the failure of state and federal
courts to act to protect Tafero's rights to a fair trial and his
right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, a right violated
in the course of his execution.