"And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God"
-- Micah 6:8

"The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict."
-- American Bar Association Standard 3-1.2(c)

"There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."
--Pope Benedict XVI, June 2004

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Innocent on Death Row?

Uhhh, no.

Jarvis Jay Masters was convicted of killing a prison guard in 1985, based in part on the testimony of other inmates. Now, shockingly, they've recanted. Some zealots believe that these recantations have "the feel of a high-profile exoneration in the works."

Masters was in prison for armed robbery when he was accused of conspiracy and murder in the death of a San Quentin guard, Sgt. Dean Burchfield, 38. Burchfield was stabbed with a prison-made knife in June 1985.

Prosecutors said the slaying was ordered by the Black Guerrilla Family, a prison gang to which Masters belonged. Two other members were convicted and sentenced to life without parole. Masters -- who prosecution witnesses said took part in the planning, sharpened the knife and gave it to the inmate who stabbed Burchfield -- was sentenced to death.

What some media accounts and zealot blogs do not mention (or actually distort, dishonestly making it appear that the state did not even seek capital punishment for all three defendants) is that the other two co-defendants were charged with capital murder also-- Masters was not just the "fall guy" for his codefendants: in one case the jury deadlocked over death vs. life imprisonment so the prosecution conceded life. In the other case the defendant was sentenced to death but the trial judge reduced the sentence to life. In Masters' case, the trial judge refused to modify the jury sentence.

The zealots simply and absolutely believe the recantations of inmates who have lost their own appeals of convictions in this case, and therefore have nothing to lose by lying to save their former gang colleague.

So the game is played: I testify against you, ensure that you're convicted, in the hopes that my situation might be improved. Then, when my case is concluded, I recant my testimony, which helps you and does not hurt me.

The zealots know this, of course, but the agenda of attacking the death penalty for them is more important than the truth of the case.

This is also why, in a typical abuse of language, they characterize this recantation as an "exoneration," as though it would prove the innocence of Masters rather than simply throw doubt on the certainty of his guilt. There's a big difference between a factually innocent person and a person about whose guilt legitimate questions have arisen such that a capital sentence should be reconsidered as a matter of equity or fairness.


Anonymous said...


Your point is that the inmates who are now recanting are liars, which begs the simple question, are they lying now or were they lying back then in 1985? And, since we conclude they are liars, in 1985 they got a benefit for lying, what benefit do they get now?

The case, according to YOU is built on the testimony of liars, so tell me again why it shouldn't be reevaluated by the California Supreme Court? Who is the zealot -- those who support death sentences based on the testimony of liars or those saying such death sentences aren't worthy of the American justice system

Tom McKenna said...

My point is that a jury and a judge both found the testimony of these guys credible, and I'm sure the defense pointed out whatever reasons existed for questioning their credibility.

Now they want to recant to save their gang buddy. I place more faith in the ability of the adversarial trial process (the jury seeing the witnesses testifying first hand and gauging their believability, and the trial judge's ultimate call on whether the evidence justifies the death penalty) than I do in appellate judges who were not at the trial.

According to your view, I suppose we can never convict anyone unless photographic or scientific evidence implicates them.

As for this case, I've been trying to find if there was any corroboration for the co-defendant testimony. I freely acknowledge that in the ideal world, accomplice testimony would not be the sole basis for conviction, particularly in a capital case, but I would stop short of making it an absolute rule in all cases.

KSDP Focus said...

What do we have to lose in the California Courts taking another look at the case?

If they conclude the conviction stands then no harm, no foul.

If however they find a problem then we avoid another innocent being executed.

This is a no brainer in my opinion. I don't understand why people are afraid to have these cases looked at again. Are they afraid we will find more innocents on death row? Can someone honestly tell me what the problem with is making sure the system is working properly?

Anonymous said...

So they were pristine icons of credibility who turned into lying scum?

krow said...

Have just discovered this blog site and post about Jarvis Masters. As for the credibility of the testimonies against Jarvis in the original trial - my understanding is that the court was never told that the testimonies were given by men who claim that they were promised some sort of leniency. Perhaps that would have diminished their credibility at the time (quite apart from whether the prosecution had a legal obligation to declare this). Tom, re your statement about these men recanting now to 'save their gang buddy. Jarvis isn't a member of any sort of gang anymore and hasn't been for a long time.
You know, I'd never really considered that angle along the lines of 'were they lying in 1985 or are they lying now'. It was good to have to consider this actually. On the face of it, it would stand to reason that getting some sort of leniency would tend to motivate someone to lie if they are prone to or desperate, wouldn't it? I can't think of what they would stand to gain now that may motivate them to lie now. Maybe if I thought about it more I would come up with something. However, what does occur to me now is that we shouldn't underestimate what the guilt of living with the fact a lie you told has sent someone to possible execution does to the person who lied. It would bear fruit over and over in someone's mind I think. Whether they act on the recurring guilt or not is another question. But - isn't it fair to say that one way to diminish the guilt if not eradicate it is to right the wrong you have committed? Is that so outlandish?

krow said...

Oh - sorry. I meant to say...I am not impartial here. Jarvis is a friend of mine. I thought I should declare that. I hope that people can still consider my comments as they stand...