Ms. Magazine

spring 2003
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this is what a feminist looks like

Features
The Feminist To-Do List by Gloria Steinem
Ms. Poll Feminist Tide Sweeps In as the 21st Century Begins by Lorraine Dusky
Affirmative Action on Trial by Teresa Stern
Women on Death Row by Claudia Dreifus
In the Thick of Life at 70 by Jessica Chornesky

Special Action Alert
Women Take Action Worldwide
Listing: Coalitions and Groups
National Council of Women's Organizations Statement on War with Iraq
NCWO Partial Members List
Why Peace is (More Than Ever) a Feminist Issue
by Grace Paley

Writing of War and Its Consequences
Ghosts of Home by Patricia Sarrafian Ward
Tales from an Ordinary Iranian Girlhood by Marjane Satrapi
Snow in Summer: LA, CA, 1963 by Helen Zelon

News
Pat Summitt's 800th Victory
Augusta Golf Club's Red Face
National Map of Priest Abuse
Women Warriors
Lesbians with Strollers
Kopp Trial
Trouble in Herat, Afghanistan
Reproductive Rights in Poland
Health Clinics in Guatemala
Congolese Women for Peace
Global Good News Round-Up
The Opposite of a Nuclear Bomb

Departments
Lower Breast Cancer Risks by Liz Galst
The Making of an Activist by Gloria Feldt
Nature Conservancy Gains by Rachel Rabkin
Harvard Stumbles on Rape Rules by Lorraine Dusky
The Bush Overhaul of Federal Courts by Stephanie B. Goldberg
My Friend Yeshi by Alice Walker

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Claudia Dreifus is a political journalist whose most recent Ms. article, "Berlin Diaries," recounted her trip to Germany to investigate the fate of family members during the Holocaust. Her most recent book is Scientific Conversations.


Women on Death Row
A Special Report by Claudia Dreifus

Filmmaker Micki Dickoff, above left, was a childhood friend of Sunny Jacobs, right. In 1990 Dickoff learned of Jacobs' plight and spent two and a half years investigating and reporting the truth that finally set Jacobs free. Photo by Steve Goldstein for Ms.


Sonia Jacobs, 56, a tiny, pepper-haired woman who makes her living as a yoga instructor, is sitting with me in a Los Angeles luncheonette, ordering breakfast.

"The cranberry, we don t have any low-fat cranberry muffins," a waiter informs us.

 

"Okay, fatty cranberries," smiles Jacobs, who likes to be called by her nickname, "Sunny." " How fatty can a cranberry be?"

Sunny Jacobs doesn't sweat the small stuff. In 1976, when her son Eric was 9 and her daughter Tina, 15 months old, she was convicted of killing two police officers in Florida and sentenced to be the first woman to die in the electric chair under what was then a newly reinstated capital punishment law.

She subsequently spent five years in isolation on Florida's death row and a total of nearly 17 years in a maximum security prison. Her children were taken from her and her common law husband, Jesse Tafero, convicted of the same murders, was put to death in 1990 in an electrocution so grizzly that his head caught on fire.

Now, it is true that Sunny was present at the crime, though in the most passive way. In February of 1976, when she was 28 years old, she'd traveled to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, from North Carolina where she lived, to meet up with Tafero, Tina s father, an ex-con who she'd fallen for. I didn't know about his background when I met him, she maintains, while picking on her cranberry muffin. "And then, once we were together, it was, you know, love."

In Florida that day, an acquaintance of Jesse's, a career-criminal named Walter Rhodes, offered to drive Sunny, Jesse, and the children to West Palm Beach, where Sunny hoped to pick up some money wired there by her parents.

En route, they were stopped by two police officers, who spotted a gun on the floorboard by Rhodes's feet. Rhodes panicked and shot the officers. Sunny, in the back, covering her children like a human shield, didn't even see the killings. The murders, she says, happened in a blink of an eye.
Almost immediately after their arrests, Rhodes cut a deal with the prosecutor. In exchange for a lesser, second-degree murder charge, he agreed to testify that it was Jesse and Sunny who'd done the killing.
Though Rhodes would fail a lie detector test, and while he was the only one of the trio who tested definitively positive for firing a gun, the authorities committed themselves to his scenario. They illegally kept from the defense Walter Rhodes's polygraph report that contradicted his trial testimony; in fact, the prosecutor told the press that he gave Rhodes a deal because the man had passed his polygraph.

Meanwhile, Sunny and Jesse were painted in the media as a kind of "Bonnie and Clyde" team, thrill-seekers who killed for the fun of it.

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Status Report: The Death Penalty

The States Currently 38 states have death penalty laws on the books. One, Illinois, has a moratorium on the practice, put in place by former governor George Ryan. As governor of Texas, President Bush led the nation in executions, presiding over a total of 153.

Supreme Court The Supreme Court in 1972 emptied all the death rows in the country, declaring the death penalty unconstitutional. States redrafted their laws, and in 1976 it was reinstated. In June 2002, the court found the sentencing of mentally retarded persons to death unconstitutional. Also last summer, the court ruled that the authority to impose the death penalty lies solely with juries, not judges. In January the court refused to review the constitutionality of sentencing juvenile offenders to death. There are currently more than 80 juvenile offenders on death row, including one who was allowed to represent himself in court when he was only 16 years old.

Federally In 2002 two federal trial judges each declared the current federal dealth penalty unconstitutional. One was reversed on appeal; the other is pending appeal. Attorney General John Ascroft has ordered federal prosceutors to seek the death penalty in 28 cases where they had sought lesser sentences.

The International Arena Over half the world's countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice and many, including the European Union, refuse to extradite prisoners to the US without a guarantee that they will not be executed. The US consistently refuses to sign UN agreements limiting the death penalty. In February the World Court ordered the US to stay the executions of 3 Mexican citizens. Mexico charges that the prisoners, along with 48 others on US death row, were not given their right to legal help from the Mexican government, in violation of the Vienna Convention. At least 97 foreign citizens now await execution in the United States. --Karen Rose

Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009