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Our Story Gives Hope to Anyone

Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle are a happily married couple with a unique common bond. Both were wrongly convicted of capital offences, and both spent time on death row. Joanna Moorhead travelled to Ireland to meet them

In 1998 Sunny Jacobs, who had spent 17 years on death row in the US before being exonerated of the crime for which she was convicted, was invited to speak at an Amnesty International meeting in Ireland. Before she left, an activist friend remarked that, if she was going to the west of Ireland, she really ought to meet Peter Pringle; but he didn’t say why.

Fast forward a few weeks, and there was Sunny on a podium in Galway, speaking about her wrongful conviction and her long years in jail when she lived in daily dread of the steps on the corridor that would herald the news that she’d been given an execution date. And on the front row was a man who, it was obvious to Sunny, was deeply moved by her testimony. ‘I could see how upset this guy was becoming, and out of concern for him I actually toned my talk down,’ she remembers. ‘I really didn’t want him to be so upset.’

At the end of Sunny’s presentation, the man approached her to talk more about her story. Later he offered to drive her to her next stop, which was in Cork. ‘And it was only on the journey that I got round to saying, so what’s your interest in all this?’ says Sunny. ‘And when he told me, I could hardly believe what I was hearing.’

The man was Peter Pringle, one of the last people ever to be sentenced to death in Ireland. Like Sunny, he had spent many years of his life on death row; he was convicted in 1980, and capital punishment was only officially abolished there ten years later. Like Sunny, he had eventually been released and cleared of the crime for which he was convicted; and like Sunny, he now devoted much of his life to campaigning against the death penalty and to speaking out for victims of miscarriages of justice.

Fifteen years on from their first meeting, I am having lunch with Sunny and Peter in the town where they first met, Galway. They could be any regular later-life couple: they both listen patiently, and then a little impatiently, to one another’s stories. They finish one another’s sentences, and Peter at 75, 11 years older than Sunny helps her collect her lunch and carries it over to the table, because Sunny has a chronic back problem that makes walking difficult.

Galway is their home now and, astonishingly, Sunny and Peter really are a married couple. In fact, says Peter, they got married twice: once in a private ceremony down on the beach for just the two of them, on the day of the winter solstice (‘there was the sun in one direction, and the moon in the other,’ remembers Sunny); and the second time in New York, where actor Brooke Shields who played Sunny in a play about death row prisoners who were later proved innocent was one of the guests.

Talking to them, you realise they’re very different characters with very different backgrounds: Sunny was raised in a Jewish family in New York, Peter grew up a Catholic in Ireland. But what unites them is an experience each considered unique before they met the other: neither had ever expected to have such a close relationship with anyone else who had known how it feels to be innocent, and yet facing the death penalty. Bizarrely, the crimes for which they were convicted were almost identical: Sunny was tried for the murder of two police officers, Peter for the murder of two members of the Irish garda.

Today, Peter says he has identified four basic elements that were features of both his case and Sunny’s, and are probably often there in a case of wrongful conviction. ‘In both our cases there was false testimony; there was prosecutorial misconduct; a false witness was used, and there was a deal done whereby someone on a lesser charge was promised the allegations against them would be dropped if they gave evidence against the main defendants. The fact is that, especially in a case where police officers have been killed, the investigating officials are under enormous pressure to come up with a defendant,’ says Peter. ‘Everyone wants results. Not justice, note: results. So if they realise they can move things round a bit, make the allegations stick, they often take that route.’ Peter remembers one police officer telling him: ‘I actually believe you didn’t do this, but my bosses really want to pin it on you which suggests to me that you must have done something.’

At their very first meeting in 1998, the couple realised how drawn they were to one another; but it wasn’t until 2001, when Sunny was again visiting Ireland and ended up stranded there by the lack of flights after 9/11, that she and Peter realised there was a romantic connection. They pondered whether to base themselves in California, where Sunny was living, or in Ireland; and the simplicity of the lifestyle there, says Sunny, made Ireland the winner. ‘I gave all my belongings away in America and flew across to be with Peter,’ she remembers. ‘It was hugely liberating, getting rid of all that stuff. I felt truly free.’

And freedom is all the more cherished by those who have gone without it, especially those like Sunny and Peter who have gone without it unjustly. In Sunny’s case, there was the additional trauma of having to cope with the fact that her then boyfriend and co-defendant, Jesse Tafero, with whom she had been travelling on the day two policemen stopped their car and were killed, was executed in horrific circumstances (the electric chair malfunctioned, and it took 13.5 minutes for him to die). Only after his death did the other person who was with them on the day of the murders confess that it was him, and not Jesse or Sunny, who fired the fatal shots. At the age of 45, Sunny was released after 17 years in jail but into a very different world. Her children (including a daughter, Christina, who had been ten months old at the time of her imprisonment) were grown up. Coming to terms with the loss of so much of her life has, she admits, been very tough.

And as for Sunny, so too for Peter. He was arrested after two police officers, Henry Byrne and John Morley, were shot in Loughglynn, County Roscommon in the aftermath of a bank robbery. The men fleeing the scene were masked and Peter, who was arrested a fortnight after the deaths, always denied having anything to do with it; but it wasn’t until 1995, after he had served 15 years and had had to listen to his jailers talking about how he’d be executed, that his conviction was finally overturned.

When they met, Peter and Sunny discovered that, as well as the circumstances of their convictions being so alike, they had also both coped with prison in remarkably similar ways. ‘When we talked we realised that, for both of us, yoga and meditation had been fundamental to our survival,’ says Sunny. ‘The thing our stories show is that everyone has the potential inside themselves to deal with terrible things,’ says Peter. ‘We all have to deal with trauma at some point in our lives, and at some stage something will come along that will seem unsurmountable. But I believe God never gives us anything to suffer that we can’t deal with; the trick is to go inside yourself and find out what you have got to help you deal with what you’re up against. People don’t realise that they have the capacity within themselves to heal themselves.’
Perhaps because they both lost so much of their lives to prison, Peter and Sunny though now aged 75 and 66 have ambitious plans for the future. Having found happiness themselves despite all they’ve been through, they’re determined to do what they can to help others in a similar situation; and they’re hoping to set up a retreat centre for prisoners who, like them, have been exonerated after a long period of imprisonment. ‘We want to establish a place where people who are released can come to decompress, where they can be part of a living family as they start to recover from what they’ve been through,’ says Peter. ‘You can’t just go straight back into normal life after an experience like that; you need to feel safe, you need to be with people who understand, and you need the help of healing professionals. We’d like to have a house big enough to have a yoga workshop and perhaps an arts studio, and animals and a garden a beautiful place where people who had been through so much could start to feel properly alive again.’

Beyond that, though, they feel their story should give heart to anyone in the world, whatever they’re up against and however bleak the outlook seems. ‘Our story gives everyone hope,’ says Peter. ‘If you can go through everything we’ve gone through, and meet as late in life as we did, and find the truly great happiness we’ve now found…well, there’s hope for everyone.’

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