July 25, 2017

Why Jarvis Masters Does Not Belong on Death Row

Synopsis of the Appeal Brief Filed on Behalf of Jarvis Jay Masters
by his Attorneys Joseph Baxter, Richard Targow and Jeannette Lebell
on November 28, 2001

This is a short and simplified synopsis of the 515-page page appeal brief. The appeal focuses on errors of the court that prevented a fair trial and denied Jarvis the opportunity to prove his innocence.

The Crime
San Quentin Correctional Sergeant Howell Burchfield was murdered on June 8, 1985. The three defendants were each charged with murder and with conspiracy to murder, with the special circumstance (authorizing the death penalty) of murder of a police officer.

Roles of the Convicted and their Sentences

  • Andre Johnson - convicted of actually killing Sergeant Burchfield:
    LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE.
  • Lawrence Woodard - convicted of planning the murder with other gang members:
    LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE.
  • Jarvis Masters - convicted of participating in planning the murder and sharpening the weapon used in the killing:
    SENTENCED TO DEATH.

Note on Witness Identification
This synopsis refers to three inmates, two of whom were trial witnesses and a third who did not testify at trial, as Inmates A, B and C, rather than using their real names. All three are named in the appeal brief, and their identities are a matter of public record.

State Witnesses
Inmate A said he was a member of the gang involved in the planning of the murder. Inmate B claimed to have been a former gang member and corroborated Inmate A's testimony. (In the State of California, the testimony of a co-conspirator must be corroborated in order to convict another co-conspirator).

Relevant Testimony that was not Heard
Inmate C admitted to prison officials that he, not Jarvis, conspired with Woodard, Johnson and others to kill Sergeant Burchfield.

Inmate A's Description Does Not Match Jarvis
The following chart compares Inmate A's description of the person he said was Jarvis Masters with actual physical descriptions of Jarvis and Inmate C, the uncharged but admitted co-conspirator.

INMATE A's DESCRIPTION INMATE C JARVIS MASTERS
Height 5'7 5'7 6'1
Weight 175-180 lbs. 185 lbs. 170 lbs.
Age Looked "old"; 30s 29 years old 23 years old
Glasses Wore glasses Inmate C refused to testify whether he wore glasses in 1985 Does not wear glasses

Background Information

  • The State was not only incompetent in collecting and preserving evidence, but also destroyed relevant evidence.

  • The alleged weapon disappeared soon after the murder. When the jury was not present, the trial judge declared "I have never seen a police authority do the kind of evidence collection that was done in this case."

  • Jarvis Masters was the only one of the three defendants who received the death penalty.

Subject Matter of the Appeal

Rulings by the judges who conducted the preliminary hearing and trial:

  • denied Jarvis's constitutional right to a fair trial;

  • denied Jarvis's right to present a defense; and

  • misapplied the law as reflected in prior court rulings.

Among the most important points raised in the appeal were the following:

  • The three defendants were not in the courtroom when Inmate A was asked to describe them. Inmate A accurately described defendants Woodard and Johnson, but not Masters. The defense request for a line-up was refused. When information on Inmate C's confession was turned over to the defense late in the preliminary hearing, the court refused a defense request to recall Inmate A in order to cross-examine him regarding his description of Masters, which more closely matched Inmate C. The appeal argues that these court rulings were in error under California law and contributed to the violation of Jarvis's constitutional right to present a defense.

  • During a prison "debriefing" (in which a gang member seeks to disaffiliate from the gang by telling prison officials enough "secret" gang information to make clear that the inmate would be at risk associating any further with other gang members), Inmate C described in detail the planning and carrying out of the Burchfield murder. More importantly, he ascribed to himself the role that the State ascribed to Jarvis. When he gave the names of those involved, he included Johnson and Woodard, but not Masters

  • Inmate C refused to testify at Jarvis's trial, claiming his constitutional right not to incriminate himself by admitting his participation in a murder. The trial judge refused to order Inmate C to testify, and refused to grant him immunity from prosecution to overcome his self-incrimination objections to testifying.

  • The trial judge ruled against the admission of Inmate C's debriefing statements and those of another inmate which identified others, rather than Jarvis, as the inmates involved in the plan to murder Sergeant Burchfield. The judge ruled Inmate C's confession unreliable because it was made one year after the murder, and did not specifically state that Jarvis was not involved.

  • Before the trial began, each of the defendants requested separate trials. Johnson's request was granted because evidence ruled admissible against Woodard and Masters was ruled inadmissible against Johnson. The court proceeded with two juries. When evidence that was not admissible against Johnson was submitted, the Johnson jury left the room.

  • During his gang debriefing, Inmate C said that the murder of Sergeant Burchfield was planned by Johnson, Woodard and himself. He also said that he supervised the sharpening of the weapon. Inmate C's admission, and another inmate admission that corroborated it, more than met the standard for reliability of evidence. Inmate C's statement was made to prison officials who, if they believed he were lying, might refuse him the protective custody he was seeking through the debriefing process.

  • Inmate C's confession would have been in Master's favor but not in Woodard's or Johnson's. For Inmate C to have testified would have necessitated either three separate juries, or two or three separate trials. Before the trial began, the trial judge ruled against the admissibility of Inmate C's confession. This decision had little chance of being reversed mid-trial. Reversal would have required declaring a mistrial and starting over with at least one of the defendants.

  • This error resulted in a denial of Masters' contitutional right to present a defense that would have established his non-involvement, or at least reasonable doubt that he was involved in the planning of the murder. Instead, Masters was forced to participate in a joint defense with the other co-defendants, a defense based on evidence that pointed to another prison gang being responsible for the murder.

  • Inmate B's testimony had provided the necessary corroboration of Inmate A's prosecution testimony. As jury deliberations began, the defense learned that Inmate B had been released from an armed robbery charge without serving a prison sentence, almost immediately after close of testimony. The defense recalled Inmate B and the parole officer who had arranged for his testimony and favorable treatment. The court refused to interrupt jury deliberations and did not allow the defense to question Inmate B regarding the special treatment. The jury came to its decision shortly after re-reading Inmate B's original trial testimony, without ever knowing about the favorable treatment he received. The read-back of Inmate B's testimony was completed at 2:00 pm. Court was convened for a reading of the verdict at 4:30 pm that same day.

  • Both Inmate B and his parole officer have since been discredited. The parole officer committed perjury to cover up an undisclosed debriefing in another death penalty case (Price v. Woodford). Inmate B was credited with perjury that threatened the dismissal of 88 criminal cases in which his testimony was a factor (Sacramento Bee, June 29, 1998).

There were a number of other legal issues raised in Jarvis's appeal brief:

  • Challenges to several other evidentiary rulings;

  • A constitutional challenge to an 18-day holiday break that the jury was granted in the middle of deliberations;

  • The admission of extensive and inflammatory evidence about the gang's revolutionary political beliefs;

  • The exclusion of expert evidence about inmate behavior in the context of the brutal conditions at San Quentin in the 1980s;

  • A ruling excluding evidence of why Correctional Officer Lipton, the "gunrail" officer who was tracking Sergeant Burchfield as he walked down the tier, changed his earlier testimony when he was called at trial. Lipton had originally, and repeatedly, testified that Sergeant Burchfield was stabbed in front of Cell 4. He testified that this was his "firm belief". He also testified that he never saw Sergeant Burchfield in front of Cell 2. But at trial, Lipton testified that Sergeant Burchfield was in front of Cell 2, defendant Andre Johnson's cell. Lipton's change of testimony was necessary for the State to make its case against the three defendants.

  • The admission of evidence of two uncharged alleged prior crimes during the penalty phase;

  • Time limitations placed on the attorneys' closing arguments during the penalty phase; and

  • A wide-ranging legal attack on the constitutionality of California's death penalty.