Why Oprah is fighting to free a man from death row

Why Oprah is fighting to free a man from death row

Left: Jarvis Jay Masters at the San Quentin prison in California. Right: Oprah Winfrey (Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; Photos: The Campaign to Exonerate Jarvis Jay Masters, Vera Anderson/WireImage via Getty Images)

A federal judge will soon decide the fate of California inmate Jarvis Jay Masters, a man who was sentenced to death in 1985 for the 1985 murder of a correctional officer at San Quentin State Prison.

In a case involving recanted confessions from other inmates, allegations of incrimination and the conviction of a man determined, Sgt. Hal Burchfield, Masters, 60, has steadfastly maintained his innocence. His legal appeals have also attracted the support of a high-profile supporter: Oprah Winfrey.

After learning of Master’s claims of innocence, Winfrey read the autobiography he published behind bars, That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row. Moved by his story, she called him in San Quentin and eventually decided to choose his memoir as a selection for her influential book club.

“I absolutely believe Jarvis is innocent and I would not have selected his book for Oprah Book Club if I had not,” Winfrey said in an exclusive statement to Yahoo News.

In 2019, Winfrey helped match Masters with a team of pro bono attorneys from Kirkland & Ellis, the largest law firm in the United States.

“It’s a story I feel the world needs to hear,” Winfrey said. “I can’t think of a greater miscarriage of justice than being accused of a crime and knowing you didn’t do it.”

Winfrey with one of her latest book club picks, That Bird Has My Wings by Jarvis Jay Masters. (Courtesy of Oprah.com)

Masters’ early life was marked by adversity and tragedy growing up in Long Beach, California with an abusive and absentee father and a drug-addicted mother. Abandoned at the age of 5, he was later abused by his foster parents and, as a teenager, had to learn to defend himself against other troubled youth being shoved in and out of the system. In 1981, at the age of 19, Masters was sentenced to 23 years in prison for a series of armed robberies, crimes he has never denied.

In prison, Masters joined the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) to support himself. Segregated gangs are common in prisons like San Quentin and can provide some level of physical protection. But they also come with responsibilities, as Masters soon learned.

The story goes on

Four years into Master’s sentence, a correctional officer, Burchfield, was stabbed to death with a homemade gun. Rufus Willis, a leader of the BGF, quickly came forward and offered to testify against his gang members in exchange for immunity. Part of that deal required him to help gather more evidence in the case.

Masters said Willis ordered him to copy notes he had compiled on the conspiracy. Masters said he feared he would be killed if he didn’t follow Willis’s orders, so he did as he was told.

In the notes submitted as evidence, Masters wrote about the making of the gun that killed Burchfield, known as the “San Quentin Special” — the term used to describe a piece of metal taken from a bed frame, sharpened, and attached to the end was a tightly wrapped piece of newspaper. Once assembled, inmates tied a string to it, which allowed them to toss the gun to other cells and locations within the prison.

Although investigators determined that Masters was not the person who stabbed officers in the chest, the handwritten notes he made, known in San Quentin as “the kite,” were used to connect him to the crime in to connect. Masters claimed he should take on the crime because he had an argument with members of the gang.

An aerial view of San Quentin State Prison on July 8, 2020 in San Quentin, California (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Five months after the officer’s murder, Willis’s account of the murder was used as critical evidence to convict Masters of his alleged role in the manufacture of the gun’s metal tip. Two other inmates and other gang members were also convicted of the officer’s murder; One of the men stabbed Burchfield and the other had ordered him to do it. Both men were sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. However, Masters was sentenced to death in 1990.

Since then, Masters, like everyone else being held on death row, has spent most of the past 20 years in relative isolation, working to appeal his conviction.

“As I sit in this 9 foot by 4 foot cell day after day, I continue to wait and hope that the courts will finally listen,” Masters wrote on his personal website. “At least I hope my story is a stark reminder that many innocent people are behind bars. I’m still fighting for my freedom, but the problems in our justice system are way bigger than one man.”

Masters has consistently maintained that he did not plan Burchfield’s murder. The other two inmates convicted of the crime have also since recanted their statements against Masters, but California courts have repeatedly upheld his conviction, making Winfrey’s involvement in the case all the more critical, according to Masters’ lead attorney.

“Oprah is hardworking, she’s smart, she’s no-nonsense, and she’s committed. She wouldn’t just tie her name to anything,” Michael Williams, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, told Yahoo News. “So the fact that Oprah Winfrey has investigated these facts and for many years asked tough questions and said, ‘Is this man really innocent?’ … I think that means a lot.”

Masters also underwent his own transformation while in prison. A year after his death sentence, he began to practice Buddhism. Since then, Pema Chödrön, a renowned Tibetan Buddhist, has also become a close friend and de facto spiritual advisor. It was Chödrön who told Winfrey the story of Masters after reading his 2009 memoir.

“My decision to select Jarvis’s memoirs was based on their power and the lessons they teach about the devastating effects that trauma has on children who are bereft of love and exposed to the worst consequences of the American criminal justice system,” said Oprah Vor Above all, his reassuring presence impressed her when she spoke to him on the phone. “When speaking to Jarvis, I was struck by how present he was and how he was able to hold on to himself despite his circumstances.”

Master and the Buddhist teacher Ani Pema Chödrön. (Courtesy of Free Jarvis: The Campaign to Exonerate Jarvis Jay Masters)

Masters seems to have found a new life in prison. He has not only written his own autobiography and two other books, but also a book about himself. He has married and divorced behind bars, gaining legions of supporters and advocates through his devotion to Buddhism.

“I discovered that every bit of love I could summon meant I didn’t have to hate,” Masters wrote on his page.

The children of the murdered correctional officer also had their own twisted destiny. Burchfield’s eldest daughter, Marjorie Burchfield, who was 14 when her father was killed, says her life had spiraled out of control after his death and that she had been drawn into a world of drugs and addiction before she entered the US Army enlisted. Like her father, she eventually became a correctional officer and continues to believe that Masters is responsible for her father’s murder.

“You can ask for forgiveness. You can become a Buddhist. I do not care [if] you were the pope,” she told the Los Angeles Times late last year. “You committed the crime, you must pay for it.”

But Burchfield’s youngest child, Jeremiah, who was just 2 when his father was killed, says he studied the Master’s case and concluded he was innocent. He hopes his vote will be taken into account.

“Sometimes it helps the judge just to look to the support of the victim’s family,” Jeremiah told the Times.

In the years since the Master’s sentencing, doubts have lingered about the case. In 2011, Marin County Superior Court Judge Lynn Duryee ruled that the evidence presented in Masters’ appeal did not warrant a new trial, arguing that she was “hardly able to tell” whether the others’ contradictory statements inmates are true. In 2019, almost 30 years after Masters was first convicted, the state Supreme Court upheld his conviction and death sentence.

In November 2020, Masters re-appealed his conviction and sentence in federal court, with his attorneys arguing that continuing his death sentence would constitute a violation of his human rights under the US Constitution. A statement on this case is expected shortly. The judge is set to review new evidence, including the retracted testimonies and confessions by other inmates who said they were responsible for making the metal tip of the gun that killed the officer.

A guard stands at the entrance to the California State Penitentiary at San Quentin on January 22, 2007 in San Quentin, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

While the death penalty remains legal in California, no one has been executed in the state for nearly two decades. Two years ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, imposed a moratorium on executions in the state. This month, officials took further steps to end the practice by making permanent a successful pilot program that moved death row inmates to general prisons across the state. The governor believes the death penalty does little to ensure justice and has been tainted by racial prejudice.

“The prospect of you ending up on death row has more to do with your wealth and race than your guilt or innocence,” Newsom said last year. “Think about it. We talk about justice, we preach justice. But as a nation, we don’t practice it on death row.”

It has also not escaped Williams that as Masters enters its third decade in isolation, nearly all of the justice officials who originally ruled Masters’ sentencing and subsequent appeals have moved on, many to entirely new jobs, including Vice President Kamala Harris, the state attorney general at the time of Masters’ first appeal.

“I’d really like to hear what Vice President Harris has to say on this case,” Williams said. “I think there’s probably been a paradigm shift in the way she looks at the criminal justice system and some of the things that happened when she was Attorney General in California.”

Harris’ office did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.


Cover thumbnails: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; Photos: Lincoln University, J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

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