Jarvis Jay Masters:
An Innocent Man

By Marion Foot Perth

Jarvis Jay Masters has been on death row in San Quentin State Prison for more than 16 years awaiting execution for a crime he did not commit.

I have been friends with Jarvis Masters for about four years now. We regularly correspond with each other, and I have visited him twice at San Quentin State Prison. My visits to see him are more of a ‘pilgrimage’ because I live so far away and can see him infrequently, and with much difficulty. From the time I first started to correspond with Jarvis, his story has had a profound effect on me. Most people who read Jarvis’ book , hear his story, or meet him have the same reaction. I have sat and watched other people talk to Jarvis through his little glass booth and watched their eyes light up and their face break out into a smile. Even some of the guards smile when they talk about him.

When I first read Jarvis’ book Finding Freedom I did not understand the legal circumstances around his case. I did not understand that he was innocent of the crime he was charged with. It was only much later that I learned the bare bones of what happened. After his appeal had been filed, Jarvis sent me a copy of all the legal documents. I first read the legal documents out of respect for Jarvis, hoping that I would understand his situation more clearly. However, I could make very little sense of anything. Even Jarvis himself has had difficulty making sense of what happened to him. He wrote to me saying that it is not really a story that even he knows. Most of what he learned about his case he found out sitting in the courtroom, listening to everyone else Legal jargon is written for other legal minds, is often obscure, and is not to be understood by the novice. So I made a determination to break through the barrier of legal jargon. I sat down with his legal documents and read them over and over again, making copious notes.

When I finally understood what had happened, I was shocked to see not only how innocent Jarvis really is, but also how much evidence there is to show his innocence. I decided to ‘write a story’ using the information from the legal documents so that other people would understand what I now understood. I truly hope that when other people read what I have compiled here, they will see what I see and realize that Jarvis is innocent and should be released from prison.

Marion Foot Perth, Ontario, Canada

Background on Gang Membership and Gang Violence in San Quentin

Gangs have been an integral part of the prison system in America since the 1950’s. New inmates are regularly confronted with violent racial gangs that often fight each other and terrorize weaker prisoners, subjecting them to sexual assaults or forcing them to pay protection. Just stepping into the space occupied by a member of a different ethnic group can be deadly.

Both Corrections Officials and inmates had every right to fear these gangs. In 1970, when a prison officer in San Quentin’s Adjustment Center killed three black prisoners, a prison gang leader called for vengeance on prison guard staff. Almost immediately, a young white guard's corpse was thrown from a cell tier. On August 21, 1971, San Quentin Adjustment Center inmates tried a takeover, ending in the deaths of three other inmates, and three guards. That autumn, prison riots swept the country. In the bloodiest of these, at Attica Correctional Institution in New York State, 32 prisoners and 11 staff died when police and a National Guard army put down the uprising with gas, helicopters, and heavy gunfire.

According to Dr. Robert Slater, who was the staff psychiatrist for two years in the 1980’s at San Quentin State Prison, “ethnic gangs were vying for control of [SQ] in hostilities that at times became almost like an open warfare....just having a look that rubbed someone the wrong way.... would be grounds for an attack.... In 1984 there were twelve murders of inmates by inmates.... People lived in a constant state of fear....that they would be assaulted or killed....nearly all of the prisoners had control of a weapon..... Prison gangs were organized along racial lines....the prison was under the control of the gangs. Prison gangs ruled the sections and tiers of the prison. Gang leaders had access to inmate files and controlled the housing of inmates. Guards sought protection from the prisoners; some even worked for gangs, and an inmate’s messages to the warden were sometimes screened by the gangs...For his own protection a prisoner needed to belong to one of the prison gangs.... Gang membership meant that one needed to support the gang and follow its orders... [One African-American gang in San Quentin] required a blood oath of its members which promised their death if they refused a gang order.”

This was the environment that Jarvis Masters entered when he arrived at San Quentin in 1981 at the age of 18.

Events Leading Up to the Plan to Commit the Murder

In 1985, an African-American gang was active in the section of San Quentin State Prison where Sgt. Burchfield was killed and where Jarvis Masters was housed. One of the inmates who was later convicted along with Jarvis, and another, who later turned States evidence in the case against Jarvis, were in control of gang activities. Gang leaders in another section of San Quentin wanted the two above referenced inmates to incite the inmates under their control to attack members of rival gangs. In addition to this, the gang leaders believed that Sgt. Burchfield was supplying hacksaw blades and bullets to one of their rival gangs. As a result, they assigned another inmate, a gang ‘lieutenant and member of the hit squad’ to monitor Sgt. Burchfield’s activities.

Apparently, a meeting took place in the prison yard with inmate Jarvis Masters and three main gang members. A discussion took place on how to plan an attack on other inmates who were in rival gangs. Jarvis was present because he was a member of the gang, and had recently been promoted to the position of ‘Chief of Security’ by one of the gang leaders. But when the discussion changed direction and there was talk about a plan to attack a corrections officer, Jarvis objected and refused to go along with the plan, telling the gang leader, “I’m not with this.” At this point, Jarvis was disciplined, demoted, isolated, and excluded from any leadership roles and any subsequent gang meetings. If Jarvis had tried to go against the plan in any way or told anyone about it, he would have been killed.

The Plan to Commit the Murder

The four inmates who were key players in the conspiracy, met in Carson yard at San Quentin to discuss the attack on Sgt. Burchfield. They spent two weeks planning how the ‘hit’ was to be done. The order for the hit had come from a senior gang member. Although Jarvis was supposed to be the Chief of Security for the gang, he was considered incompetent and insubordinate. Jarvis was not trusted and was considered unreliable; he had no authority to issue any orders and had no real power. He was not part of the Committee that planned the murder and was not given any role in conjunction with the ‘hit’ on Sgt. Burchfield.

One of the key players in the initial planning of the attack was interviewed by prison authorities in August 1986 (a year after the killing of Sgt. Burchfield) in relation to his involvement with, and knowledge of the plan to assault Sgt. Burchfield. He gave a full account of how the attack took place and the planning that went into it. According to the inmate, he and another inmate were to make the attack on Sgt. Burchfield. This information was later collaborated in a statement of another key player, along with information about who would make the weapon and how the murder would take place. Jarvis Masters was not mentioned anywhere in the information that was given to prison authorities; he had no role to play in any of this.

Was Jarvis Masters Involved in the Planning of Sergeant Burchfield’s Murder?

Below are brief excerpts from declarations and memos of inmates who claim they were intimately involved with the murder of Sgt. Burchfield or had some key knowledge about the crime.

”Masters had nothing to do with the planning of the Burchfield killing... He had no authority to issue orders at any meeting...” “Masters does not belong on death row. He did not play any part in the death of Sergeant Burchfield.”

“Jarvis Masters had no knowledge of any involvement in the killing of Sergeant Burchfield. He did not participate in making plans or telling me what to do in regards to attempting to attack Burchfield or any other officer.”

“Jarvis Masters was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. Because I was a participant, I know that Masters was not involved in either the planning or carrying out of the attack on Sergeant Burchfield.”

The Murder Weapon

According to the inmate who was convicted of carrying out the fatal assault on Sgt. Burchfield, when he received the weapon that was passed on to his cell, he had no idea who passed it to him or who made it. He was sure the murder weapon was not made above him or near him, as he would have been able to hear it being sharpened. Jarvis was housed on the fourth tier, two tiers directly above this inmate’s cell.

Various reports exist of people admitting to making a murder weapon, or people saying they ordered someone else to make one. Nowhere in any of these statements is Jarvis’ name mentioned. Testimony in the habeas reflects that Jarvis was not involved in any of this and had no knowledge of any of it.

Another key piece of information comes from a key member of the conspiracy who later turned State’s evidence and was the prosecution’s chief witness. In a recent declaration, he claims to have asked another inmate (not Jarvis) to make the weapon to be used in the attack, as he knew he was good at making knives. As far as he knew, two other inmates (neither of them being Jarvis) sharpened the metal that came from bed frames, made knives, and passed them along. Finally, an important piece of evidence comes from a key conspirator who was never accused or convicted – this inmate claims to have known all the details about the killing, and gave the names of three inmates involved in making the murder weapon – Jarvis’ name was not mentioned at all in his debrief to the authorities.

Did Jarvis Masters Make The Weapon Used to Kill Sgt. Burchfield?

Below are brief excerpts from declarations and memos of inmates who claim they were intimately involved with the murder of Sgt. Burchfield or had some key knowledge about the crime:

“Jarvis was not the knife sharpener. He was not good at sharpening metal and was not trusted with any part of the Burchfield killing....”

“I never had any knowledge of Masters ever sharpening the murder knife, ever having had it, ever even having seen it. We did not give him any role in conjunction with the killing of Burchfield.”

“I received an order ... to make the weapon that was used to stab Sergeant Burchfield, and I made the weapon as instructed....Jarvis Masters was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death....”

The Charges and Testimony Against Jarvis

Background information on the inmate who testified as the State’s star witness: He was one of the key players involved in the conspiracy to murder Sgt. Burchfield. At the time he was serving 25 years to life in another prison for first degree murder, robbery, and kidnapping. When he was moved to San Quentin State Prison in 1985, he took charge of gang activities in one section of the prison along with another key conspirator who was later convicted of planning the murder of Sgt. Burchfield. These two inmates directed and planned the ‘hit’ on Sgt. Burchfield. One of them suggested that Jarvis become Chief of Security with the gang and argued with Jarvis when Jarvis refused to cooperate with the plan to kill Sgt. Burchfield.

This inmate was high up on the gang hierarchy; he was in on the original planning of the murder, and he suggested who was to make the weapon to be used. He later turned State’s evidence in exchange for immunity and testified that four people—he and three others—planned the murder of Sgt. Burchfield. At the trial he testified that Jarvis was the gang’s “head of security” at the time of the murder and claimed that Jarvis was one of the four people who planned the murder of Sgt. Burchfield. This inmate also interpreted the written reports for the jury, two of which were in Jarvis’ handwriting. These reports discussed the murder weapon, one of which referred to Jarvis sharpening the weapon and sending it on to the inmate that was later convicted of committing the fatal assault. Another key witness, a prison informant, corroborated the testimony. He further solidified the case against Jarvis by testifying that Jarvis confided in him that he had voted in favor of killing Sgt. Burchfield.

How the Evidence Against Jarvis was Collected

In 2004, the prosecution’s star witness who testified against Jarvis and the two co-defendants, swore a written declaration explaining how he came to turn State’s evidence. He gave the details of his involvement in and knowledge of the murder of Sgt. Burchfield. The following information is taken directly from his written declaration.

After the murder of Sgt. Burchfield, the above mentioned star witness was desperate to get out of the gang and out of prison, so he wrote a letter to the warden. He then talked to two correctional officers who told him that if he cooperated with the prosecution, he would be released from prison. He met numerous times with an investigator from the District Attorney’s office, who promised him that if he testified for the prosecution, he would be released after the trial was over. The investigator told him not to tell anyone about the promise, especially the District Attorney. He was asked to keep the deal a secret.

The investigator said he had enough evidence to fill up every courtroom in Marin County with at least 20 gang members, but he wanted to focus on the hit man and on the meetings where the decision was made to murder Sgt. Burchfield. He said this was a very big case and could not be blown, so he should not tell anyone he would be released.

The star witness began to work with the investigator to create sufficient evidence for the arrest of Jarvis and the two co-defendants under the expectation that he would be released for his cooperation. However, in a more recent declaration he claims that he never mentioned Jarvis in his original contact with the authorities because he knew that Jarvis was not involved. He says the decision to implicate Jarvis came from the District Attorney’s investigator and appeared to be an arbitrary decision, because he knew that Jarvis had nothing to do with the planning of Sgt. Burchfield’s murder.

The investigator told this star witness that his ‘stories’ of what happened were not sufficient evidence, and he had to get something in writing from Jarvis and from the inmate who was later convicted of the stabbing.

The star witness approached Jarvis and ordered him to write a ‘kite’ (an inter-inmate written communication), which implicated him (Jarvis) in making the murder weapon and in being involved with the planning of Sgt. Burchfield’s murder. The witness stated that Jarvis copied the ‘kite’ under duress because he was afraid of retaliation. The witness’s opinion was that Jarvis was out of favor with gang leaders and that was a dangerous situation for him to be in; this would be his way to get back in good standing with them. He was also aware that Jarvis, too, could be murdered by gang members. The ‘kite’ that he obtained in Jarvis’ handwriting was later used as evidence to convict him.

When the District Attorney’s investigator saw the ’kite’ that this witness had made Jarvis write, he told him it was not enough to implicate him and he should go back and tell Jarvis to write another one about how certain events had occurred. The witness ordered Jarvis to write out a complete history of the Sgt. Burchfield killing from reports he (the witness) had compiled. He told Jarvis that the report, for security reasons, could not be in his (the witness’s) own handwriting. He ordered Jarvis to copy the report in his (Jarvis’) handwriting.

After getting this evidence from Jarvis for the District Attorney’s office, the star witness was then moved to the Adjustment Center at San Quentin in order to get similar incriminating evidence in writing from the inmate that was later convicted of the stabbing. This time, the District Attorney’s investigator wrote out what the star witness was to get from this inmate in a question format. According to the inmate that was convicted of the stabbing, the star witness forced him to write notes about what happened.

The star witness was later transferred to a County Jail where the District Attorney visited him, and he was told that there would be no deal made with him. At that point the star witness said he would stop cooperating, would not testify for the prosecution, and wanted to see a lawyer. The District Attorney told him if he did not cooperate, he would cut him loose and send him back to San Quentin. The witness considered this a death threat, as both he and the District Attorney knew that he would be killed immediately if he went back to San Quentin.

The second principal trial witness who testified for the prosecution: This inmate testified against Jarvis in exchange for receiving favorable treatment in regards to pending sentencing matters and/or uncharged crimes. His testimony was crucial to the prosecution, as he corroborated the testimony of the star witness, and he was granted immunity for testifying in the Sgt. Burchfield murder trial. He had a career of being a paid informer for the police and the District Attorney’s office. In 1998 it was revealed that over a hundred cases had to be thrown out of court by prosecutors because of the taint of this witness’s perjury as an informant. This witness has since stated that he knew the ‘kites’ used by the prosecution in the trial to convict Jarvis were bogus and were engineered by the State.

Crucial Information that was not Presented at the Trial

During the trial, one of the main co-conspirators who was given immunity in exchange for testifying was asked to give a description of all three accused in order to identify them. None of the defendants were present at the time he described them. He accurately described two of the accused, but was unable to give either an accurate or a consistent description of Jarvis. His description more closely fit another inmate who admitted to being one of the key people involved in planning the murder. When the defense asked for a line-up to identify Jarvis with this description, it was denied. If this co-conspirator had failed to identify Jarvis in the line up, it is most likely that the State would have dismissed the charges against him.

In June 1985, after Sgt. Burchfield had been killed, a heretofore unmentioned inmate went to a correctional officer and told him that there was a plan to attack another guard and he had been asked to do the killing. Much later, in December 1987, the District Attorney, an investigator, and two correctional officers from San Quentin interviewed this inmate. During this interview, he claimed to have been fully involved in the plan to kill Sgt. Burchfield, and he named two co-conspirators: the inmate convicted of planning the murder and the inmate involved in the conspiracy but granted immunity in exchange for testifying. Most importantly, this inmate admitted to making the weapon that was used to kill Sgt. Burchfield, and gave the details of who ordered him to do it and who it was sent to. Jarvis was never mentioned by this inmate in connection to making the murder weapon or being involved in giving orders. At the time of the trial, this inmate’s evidence was excluded because the court said it was a hearsay statement and had been made a year after the incident.

In February 2001, the above mentioned inmate swore out a written declaration saying he knew Jarvis was wrongly convicted and sentenced because he had no involvement in planning or carrying out the attack. He also claimed that he had been willing to testify at Jarvis’ trial and tell everything he knew, but the District Attorney threatened to charge him with murder if, in testifying for Jarvis, he admitted his involvement and Jarvis’ non-involvement with the murder of Sgt. Burchfield. As a result, he did not testify.

In August 1986, an inmate who was one of the original key conspirators and who bore a striking resemblance to the person described as the fourth co-conspirator by the State’s chief witness, contacted prison authorities and said he knew all the details about Sgt. Burchfield’s murder but was not willing to testify. He wanted to disaffiliate himself from the gang and was willing to debrief about gang activities in exchange for protection. He debriefed to prison authorities admitting to his role in the murder and named his co-conspirators, including four people who had all been involved in making the murder weapon(s). Nowhere in his interview was Jarvis Masters’ name mentioned. The court excluded this inmate’s confession because it had been made more than a year after Sgt. Burchfield’s murder, and because his failure to name Jarvis as one of his co-conspirators was a “non-statement upon non-statement”. When asked what he would have done if this inmate had established that Jarvis was not part of the conspiracy, the District Attorney testified that he would have dismissed the case against Jarvis.

The trial court prevented the defense from presenting evidence to show that the other key prosecution witness had received favors from the State in exchange for his testimony. In December 1985, a San Quentin inmate wrote two notes to officers in the Adjustment Center stating he knew details about who was involved with the murder of Sgt. Burchfield and was willing to relay the information to the District Attorney. No follow up was made until January 1988 when an investigator from the District Attorney’s office interviewed him to find out what he knew. This inmate said he was housed next to an inmate who told him about the murder of Sgt. Burchfield. Jarvis was not mentioned at all by either one of these inmates.

Approximately ten notes claiming responsibility for the death of Sgt. Burchfield were collected and reviewed by an officer at San Quentin. All of these notes were apparently destroyed. In April 1986 another inmate who was housed on the second tier at the time when Sgt. Burchfield was killed, confessed to the District Attorney on tape. He admitted to his role in the conspiracy to kill Sgt. Burchfield. For nearly a year after, the District Attorney’s office maintained total silence concerning this confession.

Why was Jarvis Prosecuted?

According to the prosecution’s star witness, when the investigator for the District Attorney’s office met with him, the investigator seemed intent on having Jarvis implicated. The star witness said he could not understand why this investigator chose Jarvis instead of another inmate who was also in on the meetings. He said he thought the decision was arbitrary.

According to the prosecution’s other key witness, he told the prosecutor he was concerned about testifying against Jarvis, because Jarvis had never spoken to him about the Burchfield matter. But the District Attorney’s Office told him, “We need all three,” and the witness believed that Jarvis had to be included in his testimony because the District Attorney’s office said “it would work best that way.”

In August, 1988, the inmate who admitted to being the fourth co-conspirator in the planning of Sgt. Burchfield’s murder, but was never charged, told a fellow inmate that the prison guards were trying to prove that he was involved in the murder of Sgt. Burchfield, but he cleaned up his tracks and got “some other motherfuckers for it”.

Why Didn’t Jarvis Proclaim his Innocence or Testify on his own Behalf?

At the time of the trial, gang policy was that no defendant could admit membership in the gang. None of the defendants was allowed to talk about the gang they belonged to; they were not allowed to defend themselves, or talk about any role played by their co-defendants or any other person who had played a role. Orders were given under threat of death, that to testify to such was forbidden. Even if Jarvis had known who made the weapon, he could not tell anyone. If he had, he would have been killed.

In April, 2004 one of the co-defendants admitted that “during the trial, all three defendants were under orders from their gang commanders that under threat of death, none of us could discuss the gang in any way.....I [could not] mount any defense or duress to explain to the jurors that I had been under threat of death at the time of the murder. I was blocked from presenting a defense of unintentional killing. These threats also extended to Jarvis Masters.”

Why Was Jarvis Given the Death Penalty While the Two Other Convicted Defendants Were Given Life in Prison?

During the penalty trial, the prosecution attempted to prove that Jarvis had a prior history of violence. They endeavored to provide the penalty jury with overwhelming evidence of a violent nature, but many of the allegations were false and inadmissible. The most serious of these were allegations of two uncharged murders. One was a 1980 robbery/murder of a liquor store owner and the other was a 1984 stabbing death of an inmate in the San Quentin State Prison yard.

The prosecution could not prove that Jarvis was in any way involved in the murder of the liquor store owner, so it was not an issue in sentencing. However, in an attempt to prove that Jarvis was responsible for the unsolved prison yard murder, the prosecution produced an inmate who testified that Jarvis admitted to having stabbed this inmate on the prison yard and bragged about it.

Three jury members, who voted in favor of the death penalty for Jarvis based their decision on the evidence presented that Jarvis was guilty of the prison yard murder. The jury foreperson said “the jury voted unanimously that Masters was guilty of the (prison yard) murder and that for him it was an aggravating factor he considered in favor of death”.

Was Jarvis Guilty of the Two Uncharged Murders?

Liquor Store Owner: The allegation of Jarvis’ involvement in the murder of the liquor store owner was investigated by the investigator for the Defense. She was provided with a police report about this incident and discovered that Jarvis was never charged with any crime in connection to the murder of the liquor store owner.

Inmate on Prison Yard: To prove the prison yard murder, the prosecution produced another inmate who testified that Jarvis had admitted to the murder and bragged to him about it. Since the trial, this inmate has recanted his testimony on five separate occasions. He claims that he testified falsely against Jarvis because he was driven by anger and rage towards Jarvis and the gang. Once, in a heated argument, Jarvis had threatened his family, and when Jarvis refused to apologize, he “worked on his testimony day and night” until he was sure he could convince any jury he was telling the truth. He wanted Jarvis dead and would have killed him himself instead of having the State kill him. He admitted that the testimony he gave was false: Jarvis never admitted to killing the inmate on the prison yard, never admitted he had made the weapon used in Sgt. Burchfield’s murder, and never admitted that he had talked anyone into killing a correctional officer. According to this inmate, “Everything I said at the Burchfield murder trial was a complete lie, the whole testimony....I lied and I will take the stand and say I lied under oath. Masters does not deserve to be on death row. Please help me save this man’s life....all of the lies have been very hard to live with.”

When Jarvis was searched while being removed from the yard, no blood or other injuries were discovered that would indicate he had played any role in the assault; i.e. a search of Jarvis immediately after the killing of the inmate on the prison yard found no contraband, no blood, no cuts, and no abrasions on his (Jarvis’) body.

At the time of the trial, three fellow inmates testified that Jarvis was nowhere near the inmate who was killed on the prison yard at the time of the murder.

In February 1991, two inmates were interviewed by an investigator for the defense. They told her that a report of January 1989 written by the District Attorney’s office, where they described having seen Jarvis stab the inmate on the prison yard, was false.

In 1988, members of the District Attorney’s office interviewed an inmate who was present in the yard when the inmate was stabbed. On two separate occasions they asked him if he would testify in court against Jarvis and tell the jury that Jarvis, along with another inmate had killed the inmate. He refused to cooperate, even after he was threatened, and said that he did not see Jarvis do anything to the inmate on the prison yard or to anyone else.

Thus, for more than 16 years, Jarvis Masters has been sitting on death row in San Quentin State Prison under judgment and sentence of death, when he is in fact innocent. No reasonable jury would have convicted him if they had been presented with the evidence which he attempted to present, but which was excluded in abuse of his right to present a defense; and no reasonable jury would have convicted him if they were presented with the statements regarding his noninvolvement now being made by the principal witnesses against him and the other evidence now being offered of his actual innocence.



Rectangle 2 Copy 39.png

You can help Jarvis’ case

From joining our mailing list, to sharing Jarvis’s story,
or mentoring an at-risk child, there are many ways you can help.