Jesse Joseph TAFERO
Number of victims: 2
Date of murder:
Date of arrest:
Date of birth:
Victim profile: Phillip
Black (Florida highway patrolman)
and Donald Irwin
Canadian constable friend)
Method of murder:
Location: Broward County, Florida, USA
Florida on May 4,
Florida Supreme Court
Florida Parole & Probation
transcript of proceedings
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.
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.
Date of birth
October 12, 1945
Date of crime
February 20, 1976
Age at time of
May 20, 1976
Phillip Black & Canadian Constable Donald Irwin
Race of victims
facts as alleged by state
Judge Daniel Futch
Futch's nickname was "Maximum
Dan" – he displayed a miniature electric chair on his desk
Futch was a former
After Tafero's trial,
McCain was disbarred. He was convicted of obstruction of justice
for bribing a witness in another case and for narcotics
Satz was an
assistant DA at the time of the trial
A day after
securing death penalty convictions against Tafero and his co-defendant
Sonia Jacobs, Satz announced he was running for DA. Elected
largely on this high profile case.
Satz easily won the
election and has been State's Attorney in Broward County
In November 2000,
for the first time in Satz's career, someone is running
Race of jurors
First Degree Murder/Felony
Theory was that
they killed the police so they could steal the trooper's gun
and trooper's car for getaway.
It is unclear
whether Tafero was convicted on felony murder theory or
because jury believed he was the triggerman.
The co-defendant, Walter
Norman Rhodes, took a plea bargain for 2nd Degree
Murder in exchange for his testimony against Jesse Tafero and
Two truck drivers
watched the drama unfold from a distance of 150 to 200 feet away.
( Pierce Hyman and Robert McKenzie.) Neither truck driver could
say who the shooter was, but both said in their first statements
to the police that Tafero was pinned over the hood of the car
during all the shots. Hyman's story changed slightly only after
several discussions with the police. He then said Tafero might
have gotten up off the hood of the car before the shooting
stopped, but almost when it was over. Both truck drivers saw
slightly different things, the most significant being where co-defendant
Walter Rhodes was standing. Hyman said Rhodes was always
standing in front of the car. McKenzie said Rhodes moved to the
rear of the car as the shots were fired. McKenzie's statement
was very significant because the shooter, according to
ballistics evidence, had to have shot from the rear of the car.
The reason Hyman thought Rhodes never moved from the front of
the car is because McKenzie moved his truck toward the exit
blocking Hyman's view of the scene at the exact time Rhodes
moved to the back of the car. In Rhodes' 1982 recantation, he
swore under oath he moved from the front to the back of the car
and fired at the two cops.
When Tafero was
apprehended, he had the murder weapon in his possession.
this gun killed both police officers.
Rhodes had a
matching 9mm gun. A bullet hole in the windshield post of
the trooper's car determined that the shooter was at the
rear of the Camaro when firing.
Gun powder tests
done on Walter Rhodes, Jesse Tafero and Sonia Jacobs
resulted in the following findings:
- Walter Rhodes –
gunpowder residue found consistent with "having
discharged a weapon."
- Jesse Tafero –
gunpowder residue found consistent with "handling an
unclean or recently discharged weapon, or possibly
discharging a weapon."
- Sonia Jacobs –
residue found consistent with "having handled an unclean
or recently discharged weapon." Jacobs's 9 year old son
had the same result as she.
Ellis Marlowe Haskew testified at
trial that he heard Tafero say at a New Year's Eve party 5
weeks before the murders that he would never go back to
prison, and that he owned a lot of guns.
The fact that Haskew was at that
time testifying in many federal drug cases was not
disclosed; the fact that Haskew's lawyer's fees were paid by
the Florida Department of Criminal Law Enforcement was not
When this snitch was named only on
the first day of trial, Defense counsel asked for a
continuance to investigate Haskew's background and claims
but Judge Futch denied request.
Defense counsel only had 30
minutes to interview snitch before his testimony.
In Sonia Jacobs' trial the DA also
used a jailhouse snitch who testified that Jacobs confessed
to her that she killed the police and would do it again.
The snitch was released from jail
in exchange for her testimony.
Years later, the snitch recanted
her testimony and went on national television to apologize
She also said the DA knew she was
Star witness Walter Rhodes
testified at both Tafero's and Jacobs's trials in exchange
for a plea to second-degree murder, escaping the capital
He said Jacobs fired first from
the back seat of the car
He then said Tafero got away from
the officer holding him, grabbed the gun from Jacobs and
shot the two police officers.
Principal exculpatory evidence
Tafero always maintained his innocence.
Both eyewitnesses said in their
first statement to the police that Tafero was held over the
hood of the police car while all the shots were fired.
Jesse did not have enough
gunpowder on his hands to prove conclusively he fired a gun.
Hyman saw Rhodes move from the
front to the back of the car to put him into position for
shooting the police officers, directly contradicting his
Rhodes confessed to the murders at
three different times: in 1977, in 1979 and in 1982.
All three recantations became
In 1977, Rhodes bragged to two
inmates that he alone committed the double murder.
A prison guard named Jowers
overheard the confession.
Jowers gave a formal statement to
the prosecutor's investigator, but that statement was never
turned over to Tafero's lawyers.
The prosecutor said he relied on a
polygraph in giving Rhodes a plea bargain to second-degree
Later, three polygraph experts
confirmed that Rhodes did not pass the polygraph and one
said it was the most botched test he had ever seen.
A Brady violation in Jacobs's case
reversed her conviction because the prosecutor failed to
turn over the polygraph summary report.
Star witness Rhodes said to the
polygraph examiner that he did not think Sonia fired at all,
directly contradicting his trial testimony where he said she
fired first and handed the gun to Tafero
Judge – according to Florida
Statutory aggravating factor
Double murder and Felony murder.
Found crime to be especially
heinous, atrocious or cruel.
Used the statutory factor that
defendant knowingly created a great risk of death to many
persons (based on the kidnapping and running of a roadblock
after the murders.)
Judge used Tafero's prior
conviction for violent crimes.
Judge found the killings were done
to avoid arrest (and be returned to prison as both Tafero
and Rhodes were on parole) and to hinder the enforcement of
Judge found murders were committed
by a person under sentence of imprisonment (judge used the
fact Tafero was on parole).
Non-statutory factors in aggravation
The penalty phase consisted of a
30-second closing statement by Attorney McCain insulting the
jury. See below in "Ineffective Assistance of counsel"
Judge failed to consider that
Jesse may have been convicted only on a felony murder theory
and may not have been the actual cause of death on the facts
Evidence of mental illness, retardation, and/or neurological
When Tafero was 20-years-old, he
went to prison for attempted robbery and crimes against nature.
Tafero exhausted all his state and federal
Conviction and death sentence
affirmed on direct appeal to Florida Supreme Court.
Tafero v. Wainwright.
Certiorari was denied.
State and federal habeas
In Tafero's state habeas
evidentiary hearing the co-defendant initially agreed to
tell the truth about what he did, but copped out at the last
Was ineffective assistance of
counsel an issue?
Tafero's trial lawyer had a drug
problem during the time of the trial.
After Tafero's trial, the lawyer
He was convicted of obstruction of
justice for bribing a witness in an unrelated case and for
The penalty phase consisted of a
30-second argument by defense counsel who said the defendant
feels he did not receive a fair trial, the verdict is not
fair, and he will not beg for his life or ask for mercy.
Later, at the state evidentiary
hearing on habeas, McCain testified Tafero forced him to
make this argument.
Was police misconduct an issue?
In Jacobs's trial, two police
officers testified that Jacobs had confessed to them,
implicating Tafero in the murders.
In the 11th Circuit
opinion overturning her conviction, the court found both
alleged confessions ludicrous based on the circumstances,
but threw only one out on Miranda grounds.
In Tafero's case a police officer
claimed Tafero bragged about killing the police, but other
officers present at the time of the alleged confession did
not overhear Tafero's statement.
The prosecutor suppressed the
statement by a guard who overheard Rhodes confess to two
Prosecutor lied saying he gave
Rhodes the deal only because he passed a polygraph exam: the
polygraph was a sham.
In Sonia's case, the jailhouse
informant who later recanted said the prosecutor knew she,
the snitch, was making it up.
In Jesse's case, the prosecutor
came up with a bogus jailhouse snitch named as a witness on
the first day of trial and failed to divulge facts about
that witness' career as a snitch.
(State's Attorney Satz apparently
has a habit of using jailhouse snitches in a large
percentage of his cases.) In Sonia's case, the prosecutor
failed to turn over the exculpatory polygraph summary.
Although the statement only
directly exculpated Sonia, because Jesse and Sonia were
linked by Rhodes' testimony, any evidence contradicting his
trial testimony and showing him to be a liar would also have
Craig Barnard and Richard Jorand
by of W. Palm Beach Public Defender's Office; Mark Olive and
Jenny Greenberg of Tallahassee, Capital Collateral Counsel;
Michael Tarre, Coral Gables, Fl, and Bruce Rogow, Nova
University, Ft. Lauderdale.