In 1981, when he was nineteen years old, Jarvis Jay Masters given a long sentence for armed robbery, which he describes in his memoir That Bird Has My Wings. Back then, San Quentin was a violent and chaotic place, where prisoners joined gangs for protection; Masters joined one run by other black prisoners. In 1985, when Masters was twenty-three and on the fourth tier of his section of the prison, inmates two tiers below him stabbed to death a thirty-eight-year-old guard named Howell Burchfield. Despite there being no physical evidence linking Masters to the killing, despite the fact that guards found and proceeded to lose or throw away many possible murder weapons, the prosecution accused him of sharpening the weapon and participating in the plan organized by the gang to which he then belonged.
Though both the killer and prisoner who ordered the killing were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, Masters was sentenced to the death penalty at the end of a long, problematic trial. He has lived on death row since 1990. As I explain in my column for the magazine’s March issue (“Bird in a Cage,” Easy Chair) Masters has become a respected writer, a warm and engaging conversationalist with whom I’ve now spoken many times and visited in person twice, and a devout Buddhist and friend to many in the Bay Area Buddhist community. They insist Masters is innocent and that the mountains of evidence amassed by his defense attorneys offer extensive and—to my eye also—convincing support of this position.
Masters’s lawyers filed their opening appeal brief in his case fifteen years ago. On February 22, the long-awaited California Supreme Court ruling was handed down. It upheld his death-penalty conviction and reaffirmed the legitimacy of his trial. That trial included what seem like arbitrary or biased decisions about who would be regarded as a reliable witness and what evidence was admitted and not admitted.
The appeals process only allows challenges to the trial itself. Now that it has failed—after fifteen years of Masters’ life were spent in a small cage under a death sentence—his lawyers will petition for a rehearing and continue with a habeas corpus petition. The latter allows new information to be introduced—including the fact that many witnesses recanted—and presents a stronger case overall. Still, whether Masters will ever be exonerated and ever go free is impossible to guess. What we do know is that the odds are against him.
They have been against him much of his life. A good deal of space in the seventy-three-page court decision is devoted to reciting bad things Masters is said to have done as a minor. One detail the court saw fit to bring up is: “In 1974, when Masters was 12 years old, he took some change from another boy’s pocket, but ultimately gave the money back after the boy pleaded with Masters not to take it. Masters later told police that he had merely borrowed a dime from the boy but returned it when the boy said he wanted it back.” The court included this laughably minor exchange as evidence of his immorality, but it tells a story other than what the judges intended, about a child who was already being treated as a criminal, already stuck inside the legal system. (Masters was a foster child from an early age and, after he ran away from a brutal home, an inmate in the juvenile justice system.) Most of us committed petty crimes when we were children; most of us were not interrogated by the police or had it go on our record to be brought up against us forty-two years later.
Masters was supposed to be tried and found innocent or guilty only of playing a role in the murder of a prison guard. But this recent review shows how much the state built up a portrait of him as a person guilty of many other things—including being a former member of a black prison gang whose revolutionary philosophy was also considered relevant. (His trial was in Marin, the posh, mostly white suburban county north of San Francisco, where San Quentin State Prison is a relic of a time when real estate values there were not so high; he is now neither a member of any gang nor at odds with any gang.) He was, in sum, put on trial as someone who was more or less inherently criminal and inherently dangerous. It’s impossible not to consider that his race was a part of this. The overall impression I came away with from the court decision was that he was considered a low-grade person who only deserved a low-grade trial. It’s certainly what he got.
Another remarkable passage in the California Supreme Court states: “Defense counsel sought to examine a correctional officer about various notes found in the prison that claimed responsibility for Sergeant Burchfield’s murder. These notes were turned over to the prison’s investigators but were apparently lost. . . . The officer also saw at least 10 other notes claiming responsibility for Sergeant Burchfield’s murder. The trial court precluded the officer from testifying about the note.” In other words, conflicting evidence was lost, and potentially exonerating testimony was excluded. The California Supreme Court did not have a problem with this.
Nor did it have problems with the pivotal testimony of the prosecution’s main witness, another member of the same gang who had been given immunity for his testimony, and who had refused to speak or meet with the defense team. The court decision mentions this and dismisses it, as it does testimony by other prisoners that this key witness was unreliable. He testified to Masters’s role in the killing but initially described a man who differed substantially from Masters. The description closely matched another gang member who actually confessed to making the murder weapon, but Masters’s lawyers were not at the time told these crucial facts.
Joe Baxter, Masters’s lead lawyer, described last week’s ruling as “a shabby product” that was “poorly written and poorly reasoned” and said it made factual and legal mistakes. “Justice delayed is justice denied” is an oft-cited legal maxim, and you could apply it to Masters’s case; but whether there was ever justice in the first place is a question worth asking. That a man was condemned to death and has lived in grim conditions for thirty-five years on what appears to be shabby evidence and procedures makes “justice” too good a word for what happened to Jarvis Jay Masters.
Read Rebecca Solnit’s story on Jarvis Jay Masters in the March issue of Harper’s Magazine.