Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Jarvis Masters: Justice Denied

African-American, Tibetan Buddhist, on San Quentin's Death Row: Jarvis Masters faces the ultimate sentence for a crime he did not commit. Jailhouse conversions often get dismissed as ploys, and pleas of innocence ignored as lies. But, his case rings true after being exposed for its false tone.

I had decided to look up the case of Jarvis Masters, after the chapter in the book I reviewed here last week (and inevitably on Amazon US), "Re-Enchantment" by Jeffery Paine on the spread of Tibetan Buddhism, had alerted me to Jarvis Masters' case. Perhaps I could learn from his hard-won calm after being the kind of youth that may have, who knows, found himself on the street not far from where I taught, a youth not in class but out of control, among others just as deluded.

My family and I watched a double bill the previous day. It started with "I Want to Live," the 1950s noirish neo-documentary film with Susan Hayward's harrowing Oscar-winning performance as Barbara Graham. A true story-- for she was framed and executed although not guilty, due to the police's determination to convict her for a murder committed by her colleagues, her past criminal record including perjury, and her desparate attempt to find an alibi that led her into entrapment by two jailhouse informants, one undercover and the other released for her own connivance. The film captures the dramatic situation movingly. Whatever one's views on the morality of carrying out the death sentence on those convicted for crimes they committed, the role of entrapment, set-ups, and past misdeeds coloring future behavior, or being confused with it, does indelibly tarnish this endlessly controversial issue.

The second was a National Geographic documentary on three Texas Death Row prisoners as they fought by appeals and pleas a stay from their own executions. Layne tearfully, me dry-eyed, watched this. (See her blog entry,"Apollo Rising".) Her correspondence with three prisoners begun earlier this year has drawn her inexorably into marathon watchings of "Lockup" and "Lockdown." We're sending the prisoners books and we will see one of them soon.

One of those in Texas condemned had been convicted of murder even though the victim had already died before he stabbed her; Layne had years before met and corresponded with a prisoner in for life whose only freedom from the chair or gas chamber (which she tells me is not used anymore really) is that California goes back and forth on moratoria and the prisoner's case lucked out chronologically, after a very high-profile trial bent on demonizing her role in the death of her victim. We differ as couples may on this issue; despite my being personally neutral all my life on the issue of capital punishment for the guilty, my wife is vehemently opposed.

She slept poorly, and I wondered about how the documentary had upset her. I felt like the entire blame for our unjust justice system had been placed on me. All three men in our house noticed her mood had shifted downward, so I sought to restore some tranquility. I had meant to find out more about the case of the black Buddhist at San Quentin anyhow, and I took the t.v. screen's double-feature as an impetus.

While Jarvis Jay Masters does not have a feature film or media frenzy to thank for his support, he has published two memoirs from prison. Arrested at nineteen, he was sentenced to death while incarcerated-- after one of the state's longest trials that relied on plea-bargains, informants, entrapment, uncorroborated allegations and unreliable evidence after a prison guard was murdered. His death sentence rests on the "fact" that he sharpened the murder weapon; he never came near Guard Burchfield, for at the time of his murder, Masters was locked in his cell on another tier.

He denies that he had anything to do with the prison guard's murder. He's a year younger than me, born in the city where I teach, Long Beach. He has a detailed website-- and a Facebook connection-- devoted to righting the wrongs of his case. It's under appeal and review at the moment. Much more than I can summarize can be found at "Free Jarvis.org."

From that homepage, the start of his background:
Jarvis Jay Masters is a widely-published African American Buddhist writer living on San Quentin's Death Row. Thousands of people have read his stories and essays. A growing international community of concerned citizens is calling for his wrongful conviction to be overturned. This website was created by the Committee to Free Jarvis Jay Masters. It does not originate in San Quentin.

Jarvis Masters was convicted of participating in the killing of a prison guard, Sergeant Howell Burchfield, despite the fact that he was in another part of the prison when the guard was killed. Another prisoner was convicted of actually stabbing Sergeant Burchfield, and a third man of ordering the killing. We have deep sympathy for the Burchfield family’s loss, and while we respect their desire for justice, we believe that Jarvis is not guilty of the crime for which he alone was given the death sentence.

This website provides an introduction to Jarvis Masters' life and work. You can find out about Jarvis's background. We have provided a summary of how and why Jarvis was sentenced to death, and an update on his appeal. We also set out why we believe Jarvis is innocent.

While living on death row, Jarvis has become an eloquent writer. Read about his highly-praised books That Bird Has My Wings: An Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row (how to order it) as well as Finding Freedom -- Writings From Death Row (how to order it). Both books have been praised by such important figures as Desmond Tutu, Sister Helen Prejean, and Angela Davis.

An important aspect of Jarvis's life on Death Row has been his Buddhist practice. Read about how Jarvis became a Buddhist, and how meditation has changed his life and affected the lives of his fellow prisoners.
My P.S. Other sites linked from the "Free Jarvis" page include related organizations committed to similarly corrective paths for correctional facilities' inmates. For example, at "Buddhist Peace Fellowship" and "Prison Dharma Network". Jewish and Christian groups work alongside and within the BPF. Its prison program is "committed to transformation of the prison industrial complex through advocacy, networking, ministry, and correspondence with people in prisons and jails."

The Prison Dharma project, based in Colorado but international, non-denominational, and non-sectarian, trains facilitators to work with troubled prisoners. It "supports prisoners in the practice of contemplative disciplines, with emphasis on the meditation practices of the various Buddhist traditions. PDN also promotes the Buddhist path of wakefulness and non-aggression as an ideal means of self-rehabilitation and transformation."


AM said...

Stong piece - I think capital punishment should be abolished. It is an indictment of the societies that use it rather than a protest against those it is being used against. Hopefully Jarvis makes it through.

Fionnchú said...

As with slavery, AM, Americans seem to be behind the moral evolution curve. I do wonder how much our nation's obsessions with guns, frontiers, property rights, and individual belligerence play into this "string 'em up" mentality that I confess few of us raised here can escape, given the media, the culture, and the unending emphasis on selfishness, greed, and revenge against all who dare to annoy us in the slightest way. I may evolve myself on this issue, given my wife's persuasion and my own increasing despair at the path our country's taking towards consumption and destruction.

brett said...

Clearly you are not aware of the circumstances surrounding Burchfield's death. Inmate Masters was a high ranking member of black guerilla family who ordered the murder of Sergeant (not guard) Burchfield. The inmate who actually did the crime was just a low-level inmate who wanted to make a name for himself. Shitbags like Masters deserve to fry for killing contributing members of society.

Fionnchú said...

Brett, a careful reading of the pro-Jarvis website explains that Masters was not on the prison tier when and where the stabbing of Sgt. Burchfield occurred. Neither the site nor my post approves of his murder. The site concurs that the two inmates it reports who carried out the brutal stabbing got deals with the state as a result of their bargaining. The murder is now pinned only on Jarvis. Of course, this is unfair.

For me, then the debatable point is how Masters is or is not "deserving to fry for killing" when he only readied the shank. The detail you add about Masters being a shot-caller for the murder is not mentioned on the pro-Jarvis website or by Jeffery Paine in the "Re-Enchantment" chapter that alerted me to this story, so I add your comment here.

Perhaps you may wish to inform those at the pro-Jarvis website of the information you provide. Justice must be pursued. All facts need to be raised when it comes to a death sentence, as I'm sure you'll agree.

Anonymous said...

Read Jarvis in his own compelling story of his life. He is telling his personal story and yet it is the story that reflects many young people.
Jarvis did not kill the guard and the man who did is behind bars long term as we speak.
Jarvis does not deserve the death sentence.
He has found his Spiritual Path while on death row and my prayers and vision is for him to get a fair appeal and be released.
His new book is one you can not put down until finished.
If you haven't read it, I strongly suggest you do.
a friend and supporter!