Today was the first day of open evidentiary hearings for Jarvis Masters, in response to his habeas corpus petition to the California State Supreme Court. The hearing took began at 10am at the Marin County Courthouse at the Civic Center, and will continue daily for roughly the next three weeks.
What a weird place, this Civic Center. I know one is supposed to be awed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s last major architectural achievement. But the place seems to go on and on, pink stucco sprawling across many acres. On the inside it feels more like an event than a building, a bit down at the mouth, with leaks in the roof and patched stucco covered by paint.
Anyhow, this is where they are bringing Jarvis each early morning, to the circular courtroom of Judge Lynn Duryee — Room L, Floor C, past two sets of metal detectors. Jarvis will be there each day, in his orange jumpsuit, shackled but for his left hand, free for writing.
Let me explain the process as best I understand it. A year or two ago, the defense team petitioned the State Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, seeking a new trial on the basis of flawed evidence in the original trial twenty years ago. After hearing from the state, the Supreme Court surprisingly responded with seven questions pertaining to evidence in the original trial. They appointed a judge, Lynn Duryee, to hold a hearing on evidence. At the end of the hearing process, which includes various witnesses from law enforcement and the prisons, she will make a recommendation to the Supreme Court: either recommending either a new trial or affirming the outcome of the original trial. The Supreme Court will then decide what to do. Our deepest hope and belief, at this moment, is that this hearing is a step towards Jarvis’s exoneration. As lead attorney Chris Andrian put it today, there are two key questions. Was there false testimony in the original trial? Is there new evidence exculpating Jarvis.
As I wrote earlier, this case stems from the 1985 murder of San Quentin officer Howell Burchfield by member of the Black Guerilla Family (BGF), a powerful gang inside San Quentin. Three inmates were convicted of this murder in 1990: one for ordering the killing, a second doing the act itself. And the third, Jarvis Masters, for sharpening the weapon, taking part in a conspiracy. The first two received life sentences. Jarvis was given a death sentence for sharpening a weapon that was never found, on the basis of testimony from two other prison informants.
As I have said before, knowing Jarvis over the last fifteen years, seeing his fundamental goodness and sanity, I truly believe that, although he was affiliated with BGF in the 80s as a young man, vulnerable and headstrong, he had no part in this reprehensible killing.
The point of this hearing is to convey enough of this truth, to raise sufficient doubt about the original trial to warrant a new trial on a firmer, more transparent basis. So, I am hoping to attend most days, and will try to blog an outline of events each day. I think that a detailed account is both inappropriate here and beyond my energy and capacity. But I’ll try to give you some flavor of events.
There were about fifteen to twenty of J’s supporters present on this first day — old friends who have been close to him for many years, and a few others who responded out of compassionate concern. The courtroom seats an audience of about 35, after the first row of seats is cordoned off, ostensibly for security. Jarvis was already seated at the left of a long table, almost the only African-American face in the room. He was there with his lawyers: Chris Andrian, Joe Baxter, Rick Targow, with Scott Kauffman of the California Appellate Project and investigator Chris Reynolds advising.
I think we had expected there would be some extended time spent on housekeeping and scheduling before things got moving. But very shortly, Andrian presented his opening statement. In essence his argument was that the state withheld information and substantial documents from the original defense team that would have thrown in question the testimony of key witness informants within the BGF itself. That at least one key witness had a sentence reduced after his testimony in Masters’ trial. That evidence of complicity between prisoner informants and investigating agencies was hidden until just months and days ago. That new evidence would be presented that Jarvis did not participate or vote in the decision to murder a guard, and that he did not prepare or sharpen the as yet undiscovered murder weapon.
State’s Attorney Alice Luster took strong issue with Andrian’s arguments, though it seemed to me she unsuccessfully parried the issue of hidden evidence and corrupted testimony by informants. And these are the matters at hand as witnesses appear in the following days.
The afternoon was spent questioning two retired SFPD homicide detectives concerning details in a murder that may have involved one of the key witnesses against Jarvis. As the chronology unfolds, investigation of this murder and the non-investigation of a prime suspect seem to coincide with the state’s developing circumstantial caste against Jarvis.
I will stop here for now. Others of you who were present in court today may have additional comments and corrections. Tomorrow is another day.
— Alan Senauke