July 16, 2019

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How Did Jarvis Get Sentenced to Death?

Jarvis Masters arrived in San Quentin in 1981 at the age of nineteen, convicted of armed robbery. Right away, Jarvis got involved in what the prison system calls a gang. Many young men coming into prison -- black, brown and white -- group together for protection and a sense of belonging, for family. Older prisoners of color often pass on valuable historical and political teachings about their peoples to younger men. But at the same time, prison gang families are too often rigidly hierarchical and violent, and they fail to offer young men the kind of help they need to mature and transform destructive and self-destructive patterns.

In 1985, an officer named Sergeant Howell Burchfield was murdered in San Quentin, stabbed to death at night on the second tier of a cell block. At the time, Jarvis Masters was locked in his cell on the fourth tier.

Although many inmates were suspected of conspiring to murder Sergeant Burchfield, only three were tried, Jarvis among them. One was accused of being the "spear man" -- of actually stabbing the sergeant. Another, an older man, was accused of ordering the killing. Jarvis was accused of sharpening a piece of metal which was allegedly passed along and later used to make the spear with which the officer was stabbed.

In one of the longest trials in California history, all three defendants were convicted of murder and of conspiring to murder Sergeant Burchfield. But their sentences varied. After the penalty phase of the trial, one jury recommended the death penalty for the spear man, but the trial judge reduced his sentence to life without possibility of parole because of his youth and his relatively minimal criminal record. Another jury could not reach a verdict on the older man's sentence. The District Attorney declined to re-try him, and so he was also given life without parole.

After hearing about Jarvis's criminal history that same jury sentenced him to death, perhaps partly because of his violent background. Jarvis's lawyers asked the trial judge for leniency, also on the basis of his youth -- he was twenty-three when the crime occurred, just two years older than the convicted spear man. But she denied this request and sent Jarvis to death row. He has been there since 1990, waiting for appeals to be filed.

Read "Recipe for Prison Pruno" from Finding Freedom