This story is the nineteenth in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.
Jarvis Jay Masters remains on death row, accused of murdering a corrections officer at San Quentin prison in 1985.
On June 8, 1985, Sergeant Dean Burchfield died in June, 1985, of a single stab wound to his pulmonary artery.
Corrections officer Rick Lipton said he had seen Burchfield collapse in front of the cell of an inmate named Andre Johnson. A homemade “spear shaft” made up of rolled-up newspaper and cloth was discovered nearby. Johnson, allegedly a member of the Black Guerilla Family prison gang, was accused of stabbing Burchfield.
Under a grant of immunity, an inmate named Rufus Willis testified that he was a member of the Black Guerilla Family and that he was in the prison exercise yard when two other inmates who were members of the gang, Jarvis Jay Masters and Lawrence Woodward, conspired with Johnson to kill some officers. According to Willis, the three agreed Johnson would carry out the attack and Masters would provide the murder weapon. Burchfield was chosen as the first – and, it would turn out, only – victim.
The prosecution included notes, or “kites” as they are called in prison slang, that Willis claimed had been written by Masters describing his role in the murder. A handwriting expert confirmed the notes were in his handwriting. Another gang member, Bobby Evans, testified that the trio had confessed their roles in the killing about a month after it occurred.
But there was a serious problem with the case against Masters, who was in the middle of a 23-year sentence for a series of armed robberies: At the preliminary hearing, Willis had described Masters as 5 feet 7 inches tall, bespectacled, clean-shaven and free of tattoos. In fact, Masters was 6 foot one, did not wear glasses, had a mustache and goatee and had a tattoo on his left cheek.
Before trial, inmate Harold Richardson, who matched the description Willis provided, confessed to the role Willis had attributed to Masters. At trial, outside the presence of the jury, Masters’s counsel called Richardson to the stand, but he refused to testify, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The defense asked Marin County Superior Court Judge Beverly B. Savitt to grant him immunity from prosecution and compel him to testify, but she refused. Savitt also denied a defense request to present expert testimony regarding the unreliability of jailhouse informants.
Johnson and Woodard were sentenced to life without parole. But Masters was sentenced to death after gang member Johnny Hoze testified during the penalty phase that Masters had bragged about murdering a fellow prisoner in 1984, calling it “better than sex.”
As Masters’s appeals dragged on, Willis, Evans and Hoze recanted their trial testimony with sworn statements saying they had lied at trial in the hope of obtaining favorable treatment. Willis also said he had coerced Masters, out of fear for his safety, to write the incriminating “kites,” which Masters copied from writings of Willis and Woodard. Andre Johnson, convicted of stabbing Burchfield, provided a sworn statement that Masters had no role in the murder.
Citing the recantations, Masters sought a new trial, alleging his conviction and death sentence rested on evidence the prosecution had either known or should have known “was inflammatory, unreliable, untrue, and/or misleading.”
In 2008, the California Supreme Court appointed Marin County Superior Court Judge Lynn Duyree to review questions raised in Masters’s petition. That hearing did not take place until 2011, when Duyree heard extensive testimony from Willis and Evans, expert testimony of a forensic linguist who said the kites attributed to Masters had been authored by someone else, and evidence pertaining to Hoze’s statements.
Judge Duyree concluded that the evidence she heard did not merit a new trial because she had “scant ability to discern” whether Willis and Evans had lied at the trial or before her, because the forensic testimony, while convincing, did not exonerate Masters, and because Hoze’s disavowal of his trial testimony was “not believable.”
In 2019, 29 years after Masters had been sentenced to death, the California Supreme Court affirmed his conviction and sentence. The protracted state hearings left Masters unable before that ruling to turn to the federal courts, since he was required to first exhaust his state remedies.
Masters, who became a Buddhist and has written two books, remains on death row.