Supplemental Reading — March 4, 2016, 1:01 pm

Injustice Delayed

“The overall impression I came away with from the court decision was that Jarvis Jay Masters was considered a low-grade person who only deserved a low-grade trial. It’s certainly what he got.”

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Rebecca Solnit:

From the July 2018 issue

Unmusical Chairs

From the March 2018 issue

Nobody Knows

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Trumpism After Trump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.

I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.

Article
The Cancer Chair·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

Article
“My Gang Is Jesus”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Demétrio Martins was ready to preach, he pushed a joystick that angled the seat of his wheelchair forward, slowly lifting him to a standing position. Restraints held his body upright. His atrophied right arm lay on an armrest, and with his left hand, he put a microphone to his lips. “Proverbs, chapter fourteen, verse twelve,” he said. “ ‘There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is . . .’ ”

The congregation finished: “ ‘Death.’ ”

The Assembly of God True Grapevine was little more than a fluorescent-lit room wedged between a bar and an empty lot in Jacaré, a poor neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro’s north side. A few dozen people sat in the rows of plastic lawn chairs that served as pews, while shuddering wall fans circulated hot air. The congregation was largely female; of the few men in attendance, most wore collared shirts and old leather shoes. Now and then, Martins veered from Portuguese into celestial tongues. People rose from their seats, thrust their hands into the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

Article
The Birds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 7, 2016, a drone departed from an Amazon warehouse in the United Kingdom, ascended to an altitude of four hundred feet, and flew to a nearby farm. There it glided down to the front lawn and released from its clutches a small box containing an Amazon streaming device and a bag of popcorn. This was the first successful flight of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery program. If instituted as a regular service, it would slash the costs of “last-mile delivery,” the shortest and most expensive leg of a package’s journey from warehouse to doorstep. Drones don’t get into fender benders, don’t hit rush-hour traffic, and don’t need humans to accompany them, all of which, Amazon says, could enable it to offer thirty-minute delivery for up to 90 percent of domestic shipments while also reducing carbon emissions. After years of testing, Amazon wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration last summer to ask for permission to conduct limited commercial deliveries with its drones, attaching this diagram to show how the system would work. (Amazon insisted that we note that the diagram is not to scale.) Amazon is not the only company working toward such an automated future—­UPS, FedEx, Uber, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have similar programs—­but its plans offer the most detailed vision of what seems to be an impending reality, one in which parce­l-toting drones are a constant presence in the sky, doing much more than just delivering popcorn.

Article
The Skinning Tree·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Every year in Lusk, Wyoming, during the second week of July, locals gather to reenact a day in 1849 when members of a nearby band of Sioux are said to have skinned a white man alive. None of the actors are Native American. The white participants dress up like Indians and redden their skin with body paint made from iron ore.

The town prepares all year, and the performance, The Legend of Rawhide, has a cast and crew of hundreds, almost all local volunteers, including elementary school children. There are six generations of Rawhide actors in one family; three or four generations seems to be the average. The show is performed twice, on Friday and Saturday night.

The plot is based on an event that, as local legend has it, occurred fifteen miles south of Lusk, in Rawhide Buttes. It goes like this: Clyde Pickett is traveling with a wagon train to California. He tells the other Pioneers: “The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.” Clyde loves Kate Farley, and to impress her, he shoots the first Indian he sees, who happens to be an Indian Princess. The Indians approach the Pioneers and ask that the murderer give himself up. Clyde won’t admit he did it. The Indians attack the wagon train and, eventually, Clyde surrenders. The Indians tie Clyde to the Skinning Tree and flay him alive. Later, Kate retrieves her dead lover’s body and the wagon train continues west.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A decorated veteran of the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq had his prosthetic limbs repossessed from his home in Mississippi when the VA declined to pay for them.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today