Jarvis Masters : Notes on Oral Arguments at the California Supreme Court— 3 November 2015


For thirty-four years, since the age of nineteen, Jarvis Jay Masters has been in San Quentin. For thirty of those years he has lived on the scene of a crime he did not commit. His lawyers Joe Baxter and Rick Targow filed their opening appeal brief with the California Supreme Court in December of 2001. Fourteen years later, in November of 2015, the California court heard oral arguments on this appeal. While Jarvis remained in his death row cell, his friends traveled to Sacramento witness the proceedings. Here is background and some rough impressions and thoughts.


In June of 1985 Sgt. Howell Burchfield, a corrections officer, was murdered in San Quentin by members of a powerful and violent prison gang.  Three inmates were convicted of this murder in 1990: one for ordering the killing, a second for doing the act itself. The third, Jarvis Masters, was convicted of participating in the gang conspiracy.  The first two defendants received life sentences. Jarvis was given a death sentence on the basis of informant testimony and questionable “kites” (prisoner notes) describing the manufacture of a murder weapon that was never found.

Jarvis Masters’ life of Buddhist practice, writing, joys and sorrows has unfolded within the shabby confines of one place, San Quentin. After twenty-one years housed in San Quentin’s Adjustment Center, the “hole” — solitary confinement with no access to telephone, no contact visits, and limited exercise — in 2007 Jarvis was moved to San Quentin’s East Block death row, one of three housing units warehousing nearly 750 condemned men.


On the afternoon of November 3rd the California Supreme Court convened after lunch in a stately dark-paneled room at the Stanley Mosk Building, next to the state capitol. The seven Supreme Court justices sat before the gathered attorneys and spectators. Among the spectators were law students from U.C. Davis, roughly twenty-five Jarvis Masters supporters, and principals from the original trial including former Marin super court judge Beverly Savitt, Marin district attorney Edward Berbarian, and former lawyers and investigators working for Jarvis.

Attorney Joe Baxter began strongly, characterizing Jarvis as “an innocent man crushed by the system…who had no opportunity at his 1989-90 trial to present a compelling defense that the state had the wrong man…” Baxter asserted that the trial record shows “a perfect storm of errors,” and proceeded to argue that case over the next forty-five minutes. As I heard it, the core questions — fully documented in the appeal brief — were:

  1. Was testimony and evidence suppressed in the original trial that denied Jarvis “a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense?” This disallowed testimony included key gang-leaders’ misidentification of Masters; gang-leaders’ lists of actual conspirators, which excluded Masters; and the lack of a lineup of suspected participants in the murder.
  1. Were key gang members and informants promised reduced sentences, favors, and deals in return for incriminating testimony against Masters? And were these deals not made known to Masters’ lawyers at trail?
  1. Looking at the 1989-90 trial what are the applicable standards of prejudice for the multiple errors of judicial procedure? These errors include suppression of information, destruction of evidence, hearsay testimony, and the denial of motions to sever the trials of Masters and a second defendant. Applying these standards, were the trial errors in aggregate sufficient to call for vacating Masters’ conviction?

It is beyond my ability to navigate the byways of Joe Baxter’s arguments, the court’s numerous questions, and response from Alice Lustre of the Attorney General’s office. As legal friends have explained, oral arguments are to some degree a formality, the completion of a process in which the Supreme Court already has a strong sense of where their opinion is headed. That is to say, they may have come to a general conclusion, which now must be written and agreed to. That being the case we watched their engagement, and in the court’s questions we tried to get a sense of how they were leaning. Some of the justices’ questions seemed clarifying and supportive; none were hostile.

I visited Jarvis on Wednesday, the day after the arguments. He had just completed a visit with attorney Scott Kauffman of the California Appellate Project, who had also attended the previous day’s hearing. Listening to both of us, drawing on his own legal savvy and knowledge of the case, Jarvis was understandably hopeful and anxious. At one point in our conversation he said, “I trust your good common sense. What does your common sense tell you?”

I wish the law was always aligned with common sense or maybe with my common sense. And I know too well that different people may have little sense in common. Still, common sense tells me that the appeals brief and Joe Baxter’s argument guide the Court to see clearly the weight and number of grievous evidentiary and procedural errors in People v. Jarvis J. Masters. In their wisdom, I like to think they will say that after thirty years it is time to set aside prejudice and injustice. Time to begin again to look for truth.


Jarvis has been my friend since the late 1990s. When he calls from San Quentin he talks with my wife and children, and they have come to know each other well. Jarvis has married, and seen his friends’ and relatives’ children grow up. He has had good friends and family inside and outside the prison age and die. Those years have seen the publication of his two books: Finding Freedom: Writings From Death Row (Padma Publishing) and That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of An Innocent Man on Death Row (Harper One).

Now Jarvis and his supporters wait for the next word. The Supreme Court oral arguments start the clock for an opinion that will be issued within ninety days. That means by January or early February we will know what comes next. With good reason I hope for the best outcome — that the Supreme Court will recognize that an innocent man has been denied justice. Stay tuned and keep the faith.

Hozan Alan Senauke

6 November 2015


Jarvis Masters Legal Team

Note: In 2008 the California Supreme Court ordered a habeas corpus evidentiary hearing, which was held in Marin Superior court in 2010 and early 2011, raising detailed questions about evidentiary problems in the trial. The judge-referee’s report on this hearing and briefs from Jarvis’ attorneys and the attorney general’s office have yet to be brought back to the Supreme Court for oral arguments. You can read my summary of these sessions at: <http://www.freejarvis.org/whats_new/Summary_of_Evidentiary_Hearing_January_2011.pdf>


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About asenauke

Zen Buddhist priest, activist, writer, father, musician
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