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.

Single Page

More from Rebecca Solnit:

From the July 2018 issue

Unmusical Chairs

From the March 2018 issue

Nobody Knows

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



November 2018

Rebirth of a Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Tragedy of Ted Cruz

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Rebirth of a Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

Illustration by Taylor Callery (detail)
Blood Money·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

Illustration by John Ritter (detail)
The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
Wrong Object·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.


e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

Chance that a homeless-shelter resident in a major U.S. city holds a full- or part-time job:

1 in 5

Turkey hunting was deemed most dangerous for hunters, though deer hunting is more deadly.

The unresolved midterms; Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III replaced; the debut of the world’s first AI television anchor

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


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today