Justice in the Long Halls: Jarvis Masters’ Hearings — A Fascinating and Exasperating Day in Court for Lovers of Language

28 March 2011

Eight weeks have passed since the last evidentiary hearing in Jarvis Masters’ appeal.   At the last session on 27 January, Judge Lynn Duryee allowed for testimony by a final defense witness, forensic linguist Robert Leonard, on his return from Europe.  In turn, Jarvis and his team agreed to forego Jarvis’s presence at this hearing.  This saves the state from the complicated security plans and expenses necessary for a death row prisoner’s presence in court.

Today’s witness was Dr. Robert Leonard, professor of linguistics at Hofstra University in New York, and a prominent figure in the field of forensic linguistics, the study of language and law. By coincidence Dr. Leonard is also a distinguished original member of the 60s band Sha Na Na, and a student at Columbia the same years that I was there.

With deep tones, clear speaking, and wit, Leonard let attorney Chris Andrian lead him through his credentials and a working description of forensic linguistics, which is essentially the application of the science of linguistics to legal matters.  After this preamble Dr. Leonard addressed questions about two notes or “kites” which had been pivotal pieces of evidence in Jarvis Masters 1990 conviction.  Chris Andrian made the case that while Jarvis did physically write these kites — i.e. they are in his handwriting — they were copied on orders from higher up in the prison gang after the murder of Sgt. Burchfield.  This is where linguistic analysis comes into play.

Dr. Leonard looked the language these two kites in a variety of ways, comparing them with contemporary letters written by Jarvis.  Among the many points of analysis were word choice, word frequency, sentence length and structure, idiosyncracies of spelling and punctuation, use of so-called standard English, use African-American vernacular, and so on.   Several times Leonard made the point that the purpose of his analyses was not to determine specific authorship, but to answer the question, according to the logic of his data, of whether the author of the gang notes (Q or questionable documents) and the author of the letters (known to be Jarvis, hence K or known documents) were the same person.  His conclusion was that the kites were NOT written by the same person — Jarvis — who did demonstrably author the letters or K documents.

After the lunch break, the state, represented by State’s Attorney Alice Lustre, cross-examined Dr. Leonard…for 3 ½ hours!  Her attempt to out-expert the expert was hard to sit through, the more so because nuances of his morning argument seemed to evade her.  On the other hand Lustre’s approach may have been tactical — to wear down the witness and/or to wear down the judge.  But, with  seemingly countless exhibits, she appeared to be throwing everything possible against the wall, hoping that something undermining Dr. Leonard’s analysis would stick.

The day wore on and Judge Duryee ran out of time and seemed at the limit of her patience. Near 5pm she dismissed her court staff and officially ended the day without an opportunity for the Masters team to offer redirect questions to the witness.  They all agreed to do this in the next few days either by deposition or by an electronic session.

This round of appeal hearings for Jarvis Masters is over.  The next event will be Judge Duryee’s presentation of findings on the evidence presented in these hearings.  There is no timetable for this to happen. Judge Duryee’s findings will be presented to the petitioners/defense, to the State, and to the California Supreme Court.  Petitioners and the State will have an opportunity to respond.  In time the California Supreme Court would then rule on whether the previous conviction stands or evidence calls for a new trial.  Our hope, of course, is for a new trail.  But for now it’s hurry up and wait.


About asenauke

Zen Buddhist priest, activist, writer, father, musician
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1 Response to Justice in the Long Halls: Jarvis Masters’ Hearings — A Fascinating and Exasperating Day in Court for Lovers of Language

  1. kloncke says:

    Was thinking of y’all all day today. Glad the linguistics witness seemed solid and beneficial to Jarvis’ case. Hurry up and wait sounds excruciating, though. Much love to everyone going through it.

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