the story of jarvis’ case

Jarvis Masters arrived in San Quentin in 1981 at age 19, convicted of armed robbery.

Four years later, officer Sergeant Howell Burchfield was murdered within the prison walls, stabbed to death at night on the second tier of a cell block.

At the time, Jarvis was locked in his cell on the fourth tier.

Although many were suspected of conspiring to murder Sgt. Burchfield, only three were tried. One was accused of being the "spear man"—of actually stabbing the sergeant. Another, was accused of ordering the killing.

Jarvis was accused of sharpening a piece of metal which was allegedly passed along and used to make the spear with which the officer was stabbed. This weapon was never found. If found, it would have proven Jarvis innocent.

In one of the longest trials in California history, all three defendants were convicted of murder and of conspiracy to murder, but their sentences varied. One jury recommended the death penalty for the spear man, but the trial judge reduced his sentence to life without parole because of his youth and his relatively minimal record.

Another jury could not reach a verdict on the older man's sentence. The District Attorney declined to re-try him, and he was also given life without parole.

After hearing about Jarvis's criminal history, that same jury sentenced Jarvis to death. Jarvis's lawyers asked the trial judge for leniency, also on the basis of his youth — he was only twenty-three when the crime occurred, just two years older than the convicted spear man.

But the judge denied this request and sent Jarvis to death row.

He has been there since 1990, waiting for his appeal to be heard.

Jarvis’ appeal focuses on serious charges of prosecutorial misconduct and errors of the court that prevented a fair trial and denied Jarvis the opportunity to prove his innocence.

To that end, in 2005, while still waiting on his appeal, Jarvis and his team filed a habeas corpus petition in the California Supreme Court, arguing that he is entitled to a new trial because the State violated his constitutional rights in the first trial—not the least of which is new evidence showing that he was innocent yet was still convicted.

This claim that Jarvis is factually innocent was presented along with other constitutional violations, such as the fact that the State presented false evidence.

The Court usually denies these petitions in one-sentence orders. But in response to Jarvis's petition, the Court took the extremely rare step of issuing an Order to Show Cause (OSC) demanding that California state prosecutors tell the Court why Jarvis should NOT be entitled to a new trial.

The Justices' willingness to consider such claims by Masters before his appeal is rare and perhaps unprecedented. It is a glimmer of hope.

There is no justification for the terrible murder of Sgt. Howell Burchfield and no way to ignore the suffering imposed on his family and friends.

Neither is there justification for the incarceration of Jarvis Masters, an innocent man living all these years in the shadow of a death sentence.


The Timeline

A visual overview of the key events of Jarvis’ case.


You can Help Jarvis' Case

Since 1973, 165 people who were wrongfully convicted have being exonerated from death row.

Unfortunately, many more, like Jarvis, are still here awaiting justice. Please help set him free.

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