This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
In many ways, Peter Pringle and Sunny Jacobs were destined for each other.
The two experienced a bizarrely similar injustice: Both were convicted of murdering police officers and sentenced to death; he in Ireland, she in Florida. Both maintained their innocence and were ultimately freed, but only after spending years behind bars; 15 for him, 17 for her.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that when fate—with the help of a famous American singer-songwriter—brought Pringle and Jacobs together about 20 years ago, they hit it off. They got married (the New York Times covered their wedding), they both wrote books, and Jacobs’s story was featured in a film and an Off-Broadway play.
The happy couple’s story is far from typical for exonerees, who often struggle to reenter society after incarceration. Now Pringle and Jacobs are focused on helping others adjust to life on the outside. The Sunny Center, which they founded at their home in Galway, Ireland, provides a “sanctuary” where exonerated people, most of whom come from the United States, can receive spiritual, emotional, and physical support.
Here, the couple describes how they met, fell in love, and devoted their lives to the wrongfully convicted. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Sunny Jacobs: Do you know the singer Steve Earle? He was our cupid.
I was marching through Texas in the late 90s with Journey of Hope, a group that organizes speaking tours against the death penalty. I had been sentenced to death in 1976 for the murder of two police officers. But I was innocent. In 1992, I was released from prison.
An Irish woman from Amnesty International saw my speech and invited me to speak in Ireland. Then I met Steve through the anti-death penalty community. When I told him about the Ireland invitation, he said, "Well, you’ve got to meet Peter Pringle!" But he didn’t tell me anything about Peter.
Peter Pringle: I knew Steve because he frequented a cafe in Ireland owned by a friend of mine. We talked about how years earlier, he had communicated with a man on Texas death row and witnessed his execution. It traumatized him.
Sunny: When I got to Ireland, someone else said, "Oh, have you met Peter Pringle?" I said, "No, give me his number! Everyone thinks I should talk to him!"
Peter: Sunny called and invited me to come along.
Sunny: When we got to Galway, I was preparing for my speech in a room above a pub. A big man comes up to me and says, "Oh, you must be Sunny Jacobs!"
And I say, "You must be Peter Pringle!"
Then he says, "I’ll sit in the front of the room, so you’ll have a friendly face to look at."
During my talk, every time I looked over, this big, strong man is crying. I thought, I must have really touched a nerve.
Afterward, he’s waiting by the door, and I say, "I’d love to talk more, but they told me we’re leaving soon." He says, "Well, you can stay with me! I’ll get you to your next talk tomorrow."
Here I am in a strange country, and I am contemplating going away with a stranger. My luck with men—picking them—has never been great. But the woman who had been driving me knew and liked him, too, so I went.
Peter: She stayed at my house that night.
Sunny: I remember asking him, "What’s your interest in all this?" Men don’t usually cry at my lectures. That’s when he tells me: He had been wrongly convicted, too. And he’d been sentenced to death. What were you convicted of? I ask. Killing two policemen, he says.
Oh, wow, this is getting weird—4,000 miles apart, we had the same wrong thing happen to us for the same wrong reason? Then I ask, How did you get through your ordeal? He says, yoga and meditation.
I had done yoga and meditation, too! Now, my head is going: bing, bing, bing. I hear the little spirit guides saying, Do you get it yet? This is a set-up! He had four kids when he went in; I had two kids. It felt like the universe had put us together.
Peter: My sentence was commuted less than two weeks before my execution date, to 40 years penal servitude with no possibility of parole. I needed to prove my innocence, and to do so, I needed to study law in a prison with no law library. When I was finally able to get law books, I couldn’t study because I was so angry, and I knew I needed to learn how to relax.
Sunny: When they first locked me in my cell, I felt so alone. Six steps, door to toilet, and you could touch the walls. A metal shelf on one side with a thin mattress and a pillow. I was in a building alone since I was the only woman on death row in Florida at that time. I realized I needed to take care of myself. If they released me someday, I didn’t want to bring such negativity home to my children—to be a bitter, angry person. So I did yoga and meditation as a way to open myself up to positivity.
Peter: I got a friend to lend me a book on yoga and taught myself yoga in my cell alone, trying to get my body into those strange positions.
Sunny: I came to see my surroundings in a new way. I thought: Well, I have servants for the first time in my life, feeding me, doing my dishes, my laundry. I have no work, no bills, and free electricity. Isn’t that nice? I turned my cell into a sanctuary. I tore a newspaper into strips and wove it into a mat and covered the toilet, and then I made another mat and set it by the door as a special eating area.
Peter: After she gave her next evening lecture, we went to a hotel. We sat on separate beds and talked about forgiveness. It turned out that when each of us had been released, we had decided we would not engage in bitterness or recrimination, that we would try to live a life of healing and positivity.
I came to the conclusion that the person who perjured himself to get me convicted, a police officer, thought he was doing the right thing, and I couldn’t judge him because that’s not my place. It’s not necessary to forgive him, but I have to be in the spirit of forgiveness.
Sunny: Me? I’m not so worried about judging them. For me, forgiveness is a selfish act that I do for myself, to free myself from the negativity, to make room for joy and happiness and health.
What I often say is: Your past is like your ass. It’s with you all the time, right behind you. The best you can do is learn to sit comfortably on it.
Peter: After we talked for three and a half hours, we said goodnight and went to our separate rooms.
Sunny: He was a complete gentleman.
Peter: The next morning, I said I didn’t want her to think I wasn’t attracted to her, but I was in a relationship still. After she went back to the United States, we kept in touch.
Sunny: I became one of the only people he could talk to. We got closer.
Peter: After meeting her, I watched In the Blink of an Eye, a movie about Sunny’s ordeal, and it triggered a grief that I had been suppressing, a grief over the life I hadn’t had. The woman I was living with then came home and heard wailing and found me curled up in a fetal position. When she tried to console me, I pushed her away. Intuitively, I knew that I had to go through this myself. I called Sunny, and she listened. Just knowing somebody understood was incredibly important.
I wanted more people to hear Sunny’s story, so I arranged for a concert where she would speak, and Steve Earle offered to perform. It became three concerts in three cities, so she came back for several days. By that time, I had ended my relationship.
Sunny: When I was back in Ireland, he very politely said that if I wanted to I could sleep in his room with him, but if I didn’t that was ok too. I decided, well, let’s give it a try. We had a long distance relationship for three years, then I moved to Ireland.
We knew we were blessed and decided to share that with others. A lawyer who had helped someone innocent get out of prison came to us and said her client was having trouble with drugs and alcohol. He stayed with us for a month, and he did well. We started hosting more exonerees, and The Sunny Center grew from there.
Out here, we don’t need much money to support people. We grow our own food, we have goats we milk and make cheese, we have chickens that give us eggs, we trade for fish or apples.
Peter: Exonerees usually come for two weeks, or even a month. The only rules are: no drugs, no alcohol, no violence. We’ve learned to just listen to them first. Then we share how we dealt with our own troubles, how grief can be unresolved, and how you have to be prepared to confront the grief when it arrives.
Sunny: One of the biggest problems we encounter is when people feel they have no identity except for having been a wrongfully convicted person. That’ll get you a couple speaking engagements, but where does it leave you? It doesn’t do much for your healing if you’re constantly identifying with the worst thing that happened in your life. We try to help them to see that you can find a new persona: an artist, a musician, a jewelry maker, a dog trainer, a goat milker.
Peter: One exoneree had been wrongfully imprisoned for rape and murder as a teenager. When he left prison after many years, he was terrified of women. He didn’t articulate that to us—he didn’t have a vocabulary to explain how he felt—but we could see his body language. He didn’t look women in the eye. So we took him out and introduced him to women, not as an exoneree but just as our friend visiting from America. They greeted him openly, and gradually he learned to respond and feel comfortable. It was an amazing thing to observe. He went back to the U.S. with confidence.
Sunny: Part of what we do is share the magic and beauty and love that Peter and I found together. Our pasts were completely different, and yet on the level where it really counts, we were very much alike. And I think that’s why our relationship has lasted so long. It was about the deep stuff—the important stuff.