Innocence Lost

Jarvis Jay Masters exhausts final state appeal

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Death Row, San Quentin.

Jarvis Jay Masters has exhausted his final state appeal. The Buddhist author and death-row inmate at San Quentin had a hearing before the California Supreme Court in Los Angeles last week and did not prevail in getting the California appeals court to re-examine his case.

Masters was convicted of capital murder following the 1985 prison murder of corrections guard Howell Burchfield. He has long maintained his innocence and has published two books since his incarceration. His support base includes American Buddhist author Pema Chödrön and a coterie of capital punishment abolitionists around the country.

Masters’ case now jumps to the federal courts. Masters has been on death row for 29 years and his case is muddied somewhat by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ambition to end capital punishment in the state. At issue for Masters and other potential innocents on death row is what happens to him if Newsom moves to commute all the capital charges to life-without-parole?

Masters’ supporters were looking for new legal representation for the inmate as his case was being heard in Los Angeles back in June. The court took a week to hear from interested parties that ranged from his Buddhist supporters to the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which has adamantly insisted on Masters’ guilt and fought his release at every step.

Connie Pham lives in Southern California and is a teacher who runs an Orange County youth center. She heard about Masters two decades ago when she was a 16 year old being raised in a Tibetan Buddhist household. “I found a review of [Master’s] Finding Freedom,” she says and then found the book and contacted Masters at San Quentin to thank him for writing “such an inspiring book.”

Masters is also the author of 2009’s This Bird Has My Wings, which tells the story of his conversion to Buddhism while he spent nearly two decades in San Quentin’s Adjustment Center, a supermax-like prison-within-the-prison that houses some of the state’s worst capital offenders, in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.

In some measure, Masters’ case may not be well-served by Newsom’s declaration of a moratorium on capital punishment in the state earlier this year. What happens to a man who says he’s innocent on death row if Newsom moves to commute the sentences of the more than 750 male inmates at San Quentin who’ve been in a legal limbo since California stopped executing its citizens in 2006?

“One of the fears he’s always had regarding the moratorium is that everyone’s sentences are commuted to life-without-parole and therefore the appeals process is severely hindered or canceled altogether,” says Pham. “He’d like to appeal all the way through” the process, she said as the hearing was getting underway in Los Angeles. His case is all the more difficult to resolve because it’s a factual innocence case, she says.

Masters was already serving a 10-year sentence on an armed robbery charge in San Quentin when, then a young man, Masters is said to have gotten caught up with a prison gang that was intent on killing Burchfield. He was charged with sharpening the weapon that was used to stab Burchfield to death but has long maintained that he was set up and framed by other inmates who did the actual killing. Those inmates did not receive a similar sentence.

Masters’ legal team has long argued there was a rush to judgement over Burchfield’s murder and Masters’ role in it, but has not focused their legal efforts on proving prosecutorial misconduct played a role in what they say is his wrongful conviction.

The problem is that innocence is no defense against lethal injection. “In the United States, it’s not unconstitutional to execute someone who is innocent,” says Pham.

Masters’ case has been working through the courts for two decades and Pham believes it’s because of the power of the corrections guards union that he hasn’t gotten what she believes is a fair re-hearing that would re-examine the accepted facts of the case.

“The prison guards union is one of the most powerful unions in the state and we have every reason to believe that this is the reason why this has taken so long.”

From their perspective, she notes, “One of our own was murdered.”

Thanks to the activism around Masters’ case, support for Masters appears to be growing: He joined up with the ACLU and the Innocence Project in 2018 to fight California’s newly created lethal injection protocols. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! produced a recent segment that highlighted his case. Furthermore, his case was featured in the spring 2019 edition of the Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy in an article called, “Unrequited Innocence in U.S. Capital Cases: Unintended Consequences of the Fourth Kind.” The article profiled more than two dozen death row inmates with cases of compelling innocence. And, a biography of Masters by West Marin author David Sheff is in the works. Masters has himself continued to write his way through his plight: He recently penned a rumination on the Harriet Tubman $20 bill that highlighted his nimble intellect and passion for racial justice. He’s no fan of the Tubman $20:

“The most common currency used in drug sales in the inner city is the twenty-dollar bill. By far, it’s the bill of choice that does the most harm. It’s pocket cash that gives you that easy morning walk past the projects and across the street to the liquor store on the corner. The twenty-dollar rock of crack, hit of speed, or blowjob somewhere behind the apartment building because Mama doesn’t know what else to do to feed her three babies. Will the face of Ms. Tubman look out from each twenty-dollar bill at all of the addictions the currency is enabling in broken streets and broken hearts? Is Harriet Tubman being asked to be a slave all over again? I am pained at the thought, a pain that is never going away.”

By any measure, Masters’ claims of innocence will continue to face an uphill battle, and his supporters would just as soon not highlight the fact that his capital case involves the death of a prison guard. And Pham notes that his guilt or innocence in the charges is a matter of personal conscience and judgement.

“There is absolutely no way that anyone can know anything 100 percent because we weren’t there in 1985,” Pham says. “But somebody with his character and where he is—I couldn’t imagine someone like that falsifying their innocence because they are so honest and spiritually evolved.”

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