Jesse J. Tafero (Florida) Case Summary  Case Chart

Allegation

On May 4, 1990, the State of Florida, with the acquiescence of the federal government, executed Jesse J. Tafero in the electric chair. The state and federal governments failed to ensure Tafero’s right to a fair and impartial trial and right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. The unfair trial resulted in Tafero’s execution.

Crime

Early on the morning of February 20, 1976, a Florida highway patrolman and his friend, a visiting Canadian constable, approached a car parked at a rest stop for a routine check. Jesse Tafero, Sonia Jacobs, their two children, and Walter Rhodes, a prison friend of Tafero’s, were asleep in the car. Allegedly, the patrolman saw a gun on the floor of the car. He woke the occupants and had Rhodes and then Tafero get out of the car. At some point after that, both the patrolman and the constable were shot. After fleeing the scene in the patrolman’s car, and then dumping the car, kidnapping a man, and stealing his car, the three were caught at a roadblock. Rhodes, Tafero, and Jacobs were all arrested. Rhodes turned state’s evidence in exchange for a plea to a lesser charge. Tafero and Jacobs were tried and convicted of capital murder.

Salient Issues

Trial

Jesse Tafero was convicted largely on the basis of co-defendant Walter Rhodes’s testimony that Tafero had shot both officers. A jailhouse informant also testified against Tafero. Rhodes was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for his testimony against his two co-defendants, Tafero and Jacobs, who were each tried separately. The prosecutor maintained that Rhodes had passed a polygraph test and thus a plea bargain was justified. Evidence discovered after the trial showed that Rhodes had not passed the polygraph test and that the state had suppressed the results of the test, which contained statements contradicting Rhodes’s trial testimony. Rhodes recanted his testimony on three separate occasions – in 1977, 1979 and 1982 – stating that he, not Tafero, shot the policemen. Ultimately, Rhodes reverted to his original testimony. A statement from a prison guard corroborating Rhodes’ recantations was also suppressed and found years later.

Ballistic tests indicated that one gun shot both policemen. Ballistic tests also showed that Rhodes definitely had fired a gun and that Tafero might have fired a gun or might have simply handled a gun after it was fired. The later scenario corroborated Tafero’s account that Rhodes had shot the policemen and then handed Tafero the gun so that he could drive the car. Rhodes was driving the car when it was finally stopped during a shoot-out at a police roadblock.

At the trial, one eyewitness testified that he saw a man in brown, Tafero, spread eagle on the hood of the police car when the shots were fired. A second eyewitness testified that he saw a man in blue, Rhodes, move from the front of the car to the rear just before the shooting. Neither witness could identify which man was the shooter.

Appeals

Tafero’s conviction was affirmed on June 11, 1981. A motion for error coram nobis failed in 1983. In 1988, the Florida Supreme Court denied state habeas relief. Other state appeals were also denied in 1984, 1987, and 1990. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case twice, in 1986 and 1989, and affirmed the conviction.

In Sonia Jacobs’ 1992 appeal, evidence of the suppressed polygraph test, the prison guard’s suppressed statement, and a physical re-creation of the crime scene presented a convincing scenario that Rhodes was the sole shooter. The new evidence resulted in the reversal of Jacobs’ conviction. Had the evidence been found prior to Tafero’s execution, it is highly probable that his conviction would have been likewise overturned.

Execution

Jesse Tafero was executed in Florida’s electric chair. During the execution, Tafero’s head seemed to catch on fire. Flames and smoke were seen shooting out of his head, causing the state to interrupt the electric current three times. Witnesses to the execution claimed that Tafero continued to breathe and move after the first charge was interrupted. The state’s execution was particularly cruel, and it served as a final violation of Tafero’s right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Conclusion

Jesse J. Tafero was executed despite evidence of his innocence that was finally heard by a United States court, but only after Tafero was executed. The Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court found evidence compelling enough to overturn the conviction of Tafero’s co-defendant, Sonia Jacobs – a conviction based almost entirely on the evidence used to convict Tafero. Jacobs later accepted a plea bargain and was released. Immediately upon release, she reaffirmed her innocence. Both state and federal courts failed to protect Tafero’s right to a fair trial. The state’s suppression of evidence that was favorable to Tafero’s defense and that corroborated his claim of innocence violated Tafero’s constitutional and international human rights. The initial violation was compounded by the failure of state and federal courts to act to protect Tafero’s rights to a fair trial and his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, a right violated in the course of his execution.

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