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.
“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.
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.
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.
Main photo: Jesse Tafero [Wikimedia Commons]