Politics & Policy

The Myth of Innocence

Don't believe everything you see on CourtTV.

“Imagine everything you did between the years of 1976 and 1992. Now remove all of it. Those 16 years were taken away from Sunny Jacobs, convicted and sentenced to death for a crime she did not commit. But her story is not unique, and it could happen just as easily to you. The Exonerated tells the true stories of six innocent survivors of death row.”website for the play The Exonerated

In fact, Sunny Jacobs, the main character in The Exonerated, is both legally and factually guilty, a woman who has been exonerated only by the Hollywood glitterati who take these claims at face value.

The TV-movie version, produced by CourtTV, stars Susan Sarandon as Jacobs. Four other well-known actors perform in what is essentially reader’s theater. Six people have been released from death row, all supposedly innocent, railroaded by incompetent police or prosecutors who hid evidence. It is only the latest in a recent spate of political propaganda masquerading as entertainment with the very specific intent of driving and influencing public policy on the death penalty, all funded at least in part by left-wing billionaire George Soros.

NBC’s Dateline covered the film Deadline, which celebrated the freeing of all 171 death-row inmates by now-indicted former Illinois governor George Ryan, and was funded in part of Soros’s organization. Then CNN Reports ran a Soros-funded program that claimed we should all be very leery of forensic evidence, at least when offered by prosecutors. To say these programs lacked balance would be a gross understatement. Now comes The Exonerated, which in its origin as an off-Broadway play was part of Soros’s “Culture Project.”

The Exonerated solemnly claims to be based solely on facts. It is intended to define the public debate about capital punishment: If these six characters could be released after being sentenced to death, then all Americans are at risk of being snatched off the streets, falsely accused of a horrendous crime, and convicted by out-of-control zealots in law enforcement. In reality, two of the six are murderers. They have plead guilty–and while they claim to have done so only to take advantage of a plea bargain that let them out of prison, there is ample reason for thinking that they committed the crimes in question.

Sarandon plays Jacobs as a doe-eyed innocent. She was “kidnapped” rather than being a free agent at the time of her crime, and later was subjected to a ruthless grilling by the police. But here’s what actually happened on February 20, 1976, near Pompano Beach, Florida.

Canadian constable Donald Irwin was on a ride-along with his friend Phillip Black, a trooper for the Florida State Police. They were checking a car parked at a rest stop along I-95. The Camaro was occupied by two men–Jesse Tafero (Jacobs’s boyfriend and the father of their infant son) and a prison pal of Tafero named Walter Rhodes–and Jacobs and her two children. Two truck drivers saw the trooper order the men out of the car, leaving only Jacobs and her two children in the car. After that at least one shot was fired from inside. Several more shots were fired, all from guns Jacobs had purchased in North Carolina. Both Irwin and Black lay dead when the group stole the trooper’s car and took off.

The group then carjacked an elderly man and his Cadillac, claiming they had to take a sick child to the hospital. With Rhodes at the wheel and with a 9mm pistol (owned by Jacobs) strapped to a holster around Tafero’s waist, they tried to run a roadblock. Police opened fire and shot Rhodes in the leg. The group surrendered.

Officers were unclear about Jacobs’ relationship to the men. She clarified by kissing Tafero. How did it feel to shoot a trooper? “We had to,” Jacobs said, and while being transported told officers that she had fired the first shot. On the original tape of the police interrogation of Jacobs no police officer ever yells at or “grills” her.

Court TV provides none of this context. We hear only snippets of the statements that Jacobs gave to police–and we don’t hear the inconvenient parts where she lied about knowing Tafero. (In the play, she calls him her husband.) The fact that a small armory of handguns, one of which was used to murder two men, had been bought by and (as she admitted to police) registered to her, is also not mentioned.

The murders? “It all happened so fast, you know,” Sarandon-as-Jacobs says. “I just ducked down to cover the kids…. We were kidnapped at that point.”

Back to reality: No court ever “exonerated” Sonia Jacobs. She spent 16 years in prison. She was not freed by a guardian angel, as the movie suggests. She was freed after entering an “Alford” guilty plea to two counts of Murder 2. She is legally guilty by virtue of a plea and sentence. Using the word “exonerated” to describe her is torturing the definition beyond recognition.

It is little better in the case of Kerry Max Cook, played on TV by actor Aidan Quinn. Cook spent more than 20 years after sexually assaulting and murdering Linda Jo Edwards in 1977. Two juries sentenced him to death. Facing a fourth trial, he accepted a plea bargain that let him out after 22 years. He is hardly innocent.

The cases of the other four characters are murkier, with considerable controversy about whether some of the remaining four are innocent in the way we all understand that word to mean.

So what? Hollywood often takes liberties with fact. Patt Jenkins, the director of the hit movie Monster, said that editing the life of executed Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos aided the pursuit of “a greater truth.” But most biopics aren’t intended to drive public policy. And as documentarian Errol Morris, whose film The Thin Blue Line freed a man who had been convicted of a crime an acquaintance had actually committed, puts it, “There’s not truth for you and truth for me. There’s just the truth.”

During the Clinton administration, conservative millionaire Richard Mellon Scaife funded writers to uncover (or, as critics had it, create) potential scandals to attack then-President Clinton and his wife. The efforts were bitterly denounced as part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Many in the mainstream media condemned those who accepted money to pursue a clearly partisan agenda. George Soros is funding studies, plays, and television “documentaries” with the specific goals of abolishing the death penalty and what he calls “reducing the reliance on prisons,” usually by seeking to discredit American law enforcement. Where’s the outrage now?

Joshua Marquis, district attorney of Clatsop County, in Astoria, Oregon, since 1994, is a former president of the Oregon District Attorney’s Association and serves on the board of directors of the National District Attorney’s Association as co-chair of the Capital Litigation Committee. He debates the death penalty across America and in Europe and Mexico. He is one of six authors of Debating the Death Penalty, just released by Oxford University Press of New York.


The Latest