“Six-Inch Flames Shot From His Head”: The Botched Execution Of Jesse Tafero

On May 4, 1990, convicted killer Jesse Tafero was executed in “Old Sparky,” Florida’s electric chair — but something went horribly wrong.

During the execution, witnesses were horrified to see six-inch flames erupt from Tafero’s head. Three jolts of power were required to stop his breathing, and he took several minutes to die.

Related: Death Row Dad Seeks Exoneration In Kids’ Death, Says Arson Determination Made With Junk Science

His death started at 7:06 A.M. and ended at 7:13 A.M., by the clock on the prison wall,” one reporter who witnessed the execution, wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Seven minutes is a long time to watch someone burn.” Other reports said that it took over 13 minutes for Tafero to die.

Tafero had been sentenced to death for the murders of a Florida highway patrolman Phillip Black and his visiting Canadian constable friend Donald Irwin.

On the morning of February 20, 1976, Black and Irwin approached a car parked at a rest stop for a routine check. They found Tafero, a convict who was on parole, Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs, their two children, and the driver, Walter Rhodes, asleep inside.

After noticing a gun lying on the floor inside the car, Black had Rhodes and Tafero exit the vehicle. Then the two policemen were shot by Rhodes, and Rhodes forced Jacobs, Tafero, and their children into the police car, fleeing the scene. After kidnapping another man and stealing his car, the group was arrested after being caught in a roadblock.

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In order to receive a lesser charge, at their trial, Rhodes testified that Tafero and Jacobs were solely responsible for the murder. But police found evidence to contradict this account: Gunpowder tests found residue on Rhodes consistent with “having discharged a weapon,” while residue on Tafero was less conclusive, and said to be consistent with “handling an unclean or recently discharged weapon, or possibly discharging a weapon.

According to Tafero, Rhodes had been the shooter — and then handed the gun to Tafero so that he could drive.

Rhodes’ confession led to Tafero and Jacobs being convicted of capital murder. They were sentenced to death, while Rhodes received a life sentence. Rhodes was released in 1994 following parole 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, leaving them without guardians. The children were then separated.

Related: Death Row Inmate Jailed 30 Years For Crime He Didn’t Commit Dies Of Lung Cancer One Year After Release

After Tafero’s execution, Rhodes confessed that he pulled the trigger.

Tafero’s execution made headlines around the world due to its unusually brutal circumstances. Death-penalty opponents claimed that the execution violated Tafero’s right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. State officials claimed that the botched execution was caused by “inadvertent human error” due to the fact that a member of the execution team had used a synthetic sponge instead of a sea sponge, which provides greater conductivity and a faster death.

Tafero’s death sparked a new debate on humane methods of execution, and several states switched from the electric chair to lethal injection as their means of capital punishment.

According to court records, Sonia Jacobs was later released with time served after an appeals court found that prosecutors had withheld potentially exculpatory evidence from her defense.

Jacobs remarried, to a man named Peter Pringle, who had also spent years on death row until having his conviction overturned. She reunited with her children, and later became a yoga teacher and outspoken death-penalty opponent.

Her story became the subject of an award-winning play, which has also been turned into a film, called The Exonerated. The role of Jacobs has been played by actresses as diverse as Susan Sarandon, Kathleen Turner, and Brooke Shields.

Read more:

San Francisco Chronicle

The Guardian 

Daily Mail

The New York Times

Main photo: Jesse Tafero [Wikimedia Commons]

  • Martha Bartha

    He always was a Hot Head.

  • Tinman0670

    Innocent guy murdered by the State of Flori-duh.

    • Cathina Haynes

      Anyone who participates in the murder of an individual is still guilty, just as the murderer is. He was. not. innocent.

      • Tinman0670

        You need to do your research on the case. He didn’t participate in the murder. Walter Rhodes pulled a gun and murdered the State Trooper and Constable then forced Tafero to take the gun. From what I’ve read, Tafero had an extensive crininal history and wasn’t a good guy. But he didn’t deserve to die, especially when he had no part of the murders. You think it’s ok to kill people but i bet you’d change your tune if it were you.

        • outofmyleague

          You need to do some research. Jacobs admitted to firing one shot from inside the car, officers asked her “Do you like shooting troopers?” “We had to,” she said, and while being
          transported she told officers that she had fired the first shot.
          She also entered an Alford guilty plea for 2 counts of 2nd degree murder, so she was never exonerated of anything.

          As for Tafero, witnesses said Rhodes had no gun, so he was likely the shooter.

          • DarthYan

            actually the reenactment confirmedd a different story

          • outofmyleague

            But the court transcripts confirm what I wrote above.

          • DarthYan

            Except again when they carried out a reenactment it was determined that rhodes was likely the shooter. Also the prosecution down south isn’t exactly honest

          • outofmyleague

            Again, that is not correct. The prosecution wrote in a brief “The entire incident might never have occurred if she had not fired the first shots,” and Tafero’s lawyers argued that only Jacobs could have fired the first shots.

          • DarthYan

            Doesn’t change that Rhodes was the one who fired the fatal shots that killed the officers

          • outofmyleague

            One of the truck drivers who witnessed the event saw a man later
            identified as Rhodes with his hands in full view (i.e., no gun in hand)

          • DarthYan

            Except that when they tested their hands only Rhodes has gunpowder (which proves HE was the shooter)

          • outofmyleague

            He passed a lie detector when asked if he fired the shots.

          • DarthYan

            I’ll take the firearm residue tests actually.

          • DarthYan

            the way gunpowder residue works is that it only stays on your hands IF YOU FIRED THE WEAPON. Since Tafero’s hands were clean he could NOT have fired the pistol that killed them. Since Rhodes has it it means HE fired the weapon

          • outofmyleague

            Witness sees Rhodes with empty hands, Rhodes passes lie detector test when asked if he killed the 2 men is pretty solid. Gunpowder residue shows he fired a gun that day, not when.

          • DarthYan

            Polygraphs are not reliable. Same with eyewitness testimony. If Rhodes fired a gun that day it heavily implies he was the shooter

          • DarthYan

            when else would he have fired the gun

          • DarthYan

            Taferos death was still unjust

          • outofmyleague

            I’m not arguing that either way. I’m simply pointing out that it is far more complicated, and Jacobs is far more culpable for the whole debacle, than the media repesents.

          • DarthYan

            nice try idiot but only rhodes had gunpowder on his hands. That means he’s the murderer.

      • ouiareborg

        If you actually did some reading you would find that Rhodes admitted to doing the shooting, and of ordering the others in to the car.

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