By Anushree Mehta
On the 17th of October 2019, UCL’s Amicus Chapter welcomed two exonerees from death row to talk about their experiences with the injustices embedded in the American and Irish legal systems.
Peter was a political activist in Ireland, framed for a crime he did not commit – and wrongfully sentenced to death. The case followed a dramatic series of events, involving a bank robbery, getaway car, machine gun, the death of two police officers and a run-away criminal. Intense media scrutiny placed pressure on the police to find the killer of the police officers and close the case, and thus Peter was charged, after being brutally interrogated for hours on end in police custody, with one interview session lasting over 20 hours. He was subsequently found guilty on the basis of doctored evidence in a court designed for the charging of suspects in political crimes.
After being sentenced to death, Peter was forcibly transferred to a maximum security prison, in the company of two jailors at all times with no toilet and no light in his cell. Filled with rage and hopelessness after failed appeals – Peter felt powerless. Yet he refused his lawyer’s idea to plea for clemency as he would have rather been hung an innocent man then plead guilty to a crime he did not commit. After fifteen years on death row, all on the basis of false evidence, Peter was finally exonerated and acquitted of the crime for which he had been convicted.
However, after winning his freedom a new challenge dawned – the prospect of reintegrating into society. He could not understand the world he re-entered, nor could it understand him.
4,000 miles away, in Florida, Sunny Jacobs had also been wrongfully incarcerated for the killing of two police officers. She was sentenced to death at the age of 27, as a mother, daughter and wife who had her whole life ahead of her. She was freed at the age of 45, a widow, orphan and grandmother. The prosecutor, who was running for District Attorney at the time threatened a witness to commit perjury in order to convict Sunny of a crime she clearly had not committed.
Several years later, that same witness took the stand to testify against the DA but in fear, had a heart attack on the stand – and her testimony was disregarded because of her previous record of drug use. Ironically, the judge had not dismissed that same witness’ statement despite her drug use at the time of Sunny’s first trial. After a few years as the only woman on death row at that time in the US, her sentence was changed to life imprisonment. This meant she was free from solitary confinement, able to finally interact with people – so much so that she was almost happy.
Misery. Anger. Confusion. Sunny knew no other emotions for the duration of her seventeen years in prison. She attempted to make her time bearable by practicing yoga and engaging in ‘spiritual’ activities. As her life outside prison collapsed, with the death of her parents, her daughter’s attempted suicide and the refusal of her children’s foster parents to facilitate visits by her children to see her in prison – Sunny had begun to lose hope. After being freed from prison, she advocated against the death penalty but what she learnt was that it made her feel like a victim. Instead, she is a survivor.
Sunny and Peter both believe that individuals bring change, and the couple have now set up the Sunny Centre Foundation in Ireland. This foundation aims to provide mental, physical and emotional rehabilitation and support for those who have been wrongfully incarcerated. There is a misconception that exonerees are compensated after leaving prison, however in reality the system does not operate as such. After spending years in prison, you not only are perceived but also feel unhuman – and new challenges await the newly exonerated as they try to rebuild lives shattered by the state.