Ms. Magazine

spring 2003
* * * *
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

Send a Letter to the Editor
>> click here



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

 

Jesse, the first to go to court, was quickly found guilty and sentenced to death. At Sunny's trial, the most persuasive evidence the D.A. had was Walter Rhodes's testimony. To make a defendant with no previous felony convictions eligible, as the phrase goes, for the death penalty, then-Assistant District Attorney Michael Satz brought in a surprise witness: a young woman detained on drug charges around the time of Sunny's arrest. At the D.A.'s behest, Brenda Isham would claim in court that, Sunny, her cellmate for a brief while, had confessed to the killing, said she enjoyed it, and would do it again.

Sunny can recall sitting in the Broward County courtroom numb: "They are talking about you and you don't know what the heck they're talking about. You say to the lawyer, 'Say something, he's lying.' He says, 'Shhh, shhh... don't disturb the proceedings.' And then, when they brought this girl in, I thought, 'This is a joke. Everybody's going to know that you're not going to sit down and tell your life story to some girl who came into jail on drugs one night.'"

About that shushing lawyer: He was an underpaid, court-appointed attorney. "I didn t exactly have O.J. Simpson's 'dream team,'" she sighs. "My parents were told a private lawyer would cost six figures. Who has that? They could have mortgaged their house, but the feeling was, 'You didn't do anything, there's no evidence, the court will give you an attorney. It's just a technicality. You go to court. They'll see you didn't do anything and you'll go home. We were naive. We believed in the system."

As luck would have it, the system assigned her a judge, Daniel Futch, famous throughout Florida for decorating his desk with a sparking model of the electric chair. Up against such powerful forces, Jacobs, guilty at worst of loving unwisely, found herself convicted of two murders she hadn't committed. The jury recommended a life sentence. Judge Futch overruled them and ordered death by electrocution.

Thus Sunny entered history as the first woman sentenced to die after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. Since that 1976 day, some 131 women have been similarly condemned; 10 have been executed nine in the last five years. One knows some of their names: Karla Faye Tucker, Wanda Jean Allen.

For the first five years of her incarceration, Jacobs existed in total isolation in a tiny cinderblock cell. Her guards were prohibited from even speaking to her.

While she waited for her appeals to wend their way through the courts, Jacobs held herself together by practicing yoga and writing to Jesse and her children. At night, she dreamt of Ethel Rosenberg.

A break, a big one, came in 1982, when the Florida Supreme Court overturned her death sentence, converting it to life-imprisonment. Now, Sunny was released into the general population of the Broward Correctional Institution, where she noticed something chilling: The women who were in for murder, normally, were there because they'd been involved with a man.
Ultimately, it would take a woman to help Sonia Jacobs win back her future. In 1990, a childhood pal of Sunny's-- West Coast filmmaker Micki Dickoff --heard about her old friend's situation.

Dickoff became obsessed with the case and spent the next two and a half years investigating it. She used her filmmaking skills to create computer graphic storyboards proving that Walter Rhodes could have fired all the shots. Then, she convinced an ABC news crew to go to Wisconsin, where Brenda Isham the damaging jailhouse witness now lived. Before network cameras, a tearful Ms. Isham told of how the prosecutor had encouraged her to lie about what Jacobs said to her in 1976.

JUMP TO PAGE 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7
Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009