Easy Chair — From the March 2016 issue

Bird in a Cage

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When I row past the prison I think about currents and I think about Jarvis Jay Masters, who’s been on my mind for a long time. We were born eight months apart and are both children of coastal California. We’re both storytellers. But he has been in San Quentin since he was nineteen, more than a third of a century ago, and has swum against the current all his life. For the past twenty-five years, he’s been on death row, though the evidence is on the side of his innocence.

Until he turned twenty-three, Masters’s story could have been that of any number of poor inner-city boys: his father missing in action; his mother drawn into the vortex of heroin; his early neglect; and a ride through the best and worst of the foster-care system, which dropped him straight into the juvenile-prison system. At nineteen, he was sent to San Quentin for armed robbery. Four years later, on June 8, 1985, Howell Burchfield, a prison guard and father of five, was murdered. Two members of a black prison gang were convicted of planning and carrying out the crime. They were given life sentences. Masters was accused of conspiring in the murder and of sharpening the weapon that was used to stab Burchfield in the heart. He received the death penalty.

In books and movies, resourceful lawyers or investigators find a subtle detail, possibly two, to undermine an otherwise credible case. But in Masters’s case there aren’t merely one or two weak links. So far as I can tell, the whole chain is rotten.

Major witnesses changed their testimony, and several of the prisoners who testified against Masters recanted. Some testified that they had been offered incentives to incriminate him. One star witness was so unreliable and so widely used as an informant that dozens of cases in the state had to be thrown out because of his involvement. He has recanted his testimony about Masters. The man convicted of carrying out the murder said in 2004 that Masters was innocent and that all three men on trial were “under orders from [gang] commanders that, under threat of death, none of us could discuss the [gang] in any way.” Meaning that Masters faced two death penalties, and one set him up for the other.

I first read about Masters in Altars in the Street, a 1997 book by Melody Ermachild Chavis, who was the defense investigator for his murder trial. They have remained close for thirty years. Chavis and I later became friends ourselves. “It was obvious working on it even way back then, between 1985 and 1990, that they had a lot of suspects and a lot of theories,” she told me earlier this year. “The big mistake they made was: they destroyed the crime scene. They bagged it all up and threw it in the Marin County dump.”

She described the way prisoners and prison officials got rid of hundreds of notes that had been exchanged between prisoners, as well as a large collection of prison-made knives, which had been thrown out of the cells when the prisoners realized that they were going to be searched. According to one account in Masters’s mountain of legal documents, guards collected two different potential murder weapons, which they say they put into envelopes as evidence. Both disappeared before the trial.

Masters was a gang member at the time of the killing, but the gang’s leaders eventually gave many reasons why it was impossible that he had sharpened the missing weapon. One was that he had voted against killing Burchfield, an act of insubordination for which he had been stripped of responsibilities. Another was geography; he was on the fourth tier of a cell block, and the murder took place on the second tier. Moving a weapon back and forth would have been difficult and dangerous, and a witness testified that the weapon never left the second tier. Most critically, someone else admitted to making it.

Masters’s attorneys filed the opening brief of his appeal in 2001, after which his case progressed slowly. It was not until November of last year that the California Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the appeal. Even by the standards of California’s glacial appeals process, this is an unusually long time.

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