Why Oprah is fighting to free a man from death row

After more than 30 years on death row for a crime he says he didn’t commit, California inmate Jarvis Jay Masters finally has a chance to be free thanks to the support of a very high-profile backer.

Left: Jarvis Jay Masters in San Quentin Prison. Right: Oprah Winfrey (Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: The Campaign to Exonerate Jarvis Jay Masters, Vera Anderson/WireImage viaGetty Images)
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A federal judge will soon decide the fate of California inmate Jarvis Jay Masters, a man sentenced to death in the 1985 murder of a correctional officer at San Quentin State Prison.

In a case that has seen recanted confessions from other inmates, accusations of recrimination and the conviction of a man who was determined to have fatally stabbed Sgt. Hal Burchfield, Masters, 60, has steadfastly maintained his innocence. His legal appeals have also drawn the support of a high-profile backer: Oprah Winfrey.

After learning of Masters’s claims of innocence, Winfrey read the autobiography he published from behind bars, That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row. Moved by his story, she called him at San Quentin, and eventually decided to choose his memoir as a selection for her influential book club.

“I absolutely believe Jarvis is innocent, and I wouldn't have selected his book for the Oprah Book Club if I didn't,” Winfrey told Yahoo News in an exclusive statement.

In 2019, Winfrey helped connect Masters with a team of pro bono attorneys from Kirkland & Ellis, the largest law firm in the United States.

“It's a story that I believe the world needs to hear,” Winfrey said. “I can't imagine a greater miscarriage of justice than to be accused of a crime and to know that you did not do it.”

Winfrey poses with Masters's book.
Winfrey with one of her latest book club picks, "That Bird Has My Wings" by Jarvis Jay Masters. (Courtesy of Oprah.com)

Masters's early life was marked by misfortune and tragedy, growing up in Long Beach, Calif., with a violent and absentee father and a mother addicted to drugs. He was abandoned by the age of 5, was later abused by his foster parents and had to learn as a teen how to defend himself against other troubled youth shuffled in and out of the system. In 1981, at 19, Masters was sentenced to 23 years in prison for a series of armed robberies, crimes he never disputed having committed.

It was in jail that Masters joined the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) as a means of self-preservation. Racially segregated gangs are common in prisons like San Quentin, and can offer a measure of physical protection. But they also come with obligations, as Masters soon learned.

Four years into Masters’s sentence, a correctional officer, Burchfield, was stabbed to death with a home-made weapon. Rufus Willis, a leader in the BGF, quickly came forward and offered to testify against his fellow gang members in exchange for being granted immunity. Part of that deal required him to help collect further evidence in the case.

According to court filings, Masters said Willis ordered him to copy notes he had compiled about the plot. Masters said he feared that if he didn’t follow Willis’s orders he would be killed, so he did as he was told.

In the notes submitted as evidence, Masters wrote about the creation of the weapon used to kill Burchfield, known as a “San Quentin special” — the term used to describe a piece of a metal taken from a bedframe, sharpened and attached to the end of a tightly wound piece of newspaper. Once it had been assembled, inmates tied a string to it that allowed them to toss the weapon to other cells and locations inside the prison.

Although investigators determined that Masters was not the person who stabbed the officer in the chest, the handwritten notes he had taken, known in San Quentin as “kites,” were used to link him to the crime. As noted in the filings, Masters claimed that he was targeted to take the fall for the crime because he had fallen out with the members of the gang.

An aerial view shows the extensive complex of San Quentin State Prison on the San Francisco Bay.
An aerial view of San Quentin State Prison on July 8, 2020, in San Quentin, Calif. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Five months after the officer’s murder, Willis’s account of the killing was used as the critical piece of evidence to convict Masters for his alleged role in making the weapon’s metal tip. Two other inmates and fellow gang members were also convicted in the officer’s murder; one of the men stabbed Burchfield and the other had directed him to do so. Both men were given a life sentence without parole. Masters, however, was sentenced to death in 1990.

Since then, Masters, like all those being held on death row, has spent the majority of the last 20 years in relative isolation, working to appeal his conviction.

“As I sit in this 9- by 4-foot cell, day in and day out, I keep waiting, hoping the courts will finally listen,” Masters wrote on his personal website. “At the very least, I hope my story is a stark reminder that there are many innocent individuals behind bars. I am still fighting for my freedom but the problems in our justice system are much larger than one man.”

Masters has been consistent in his contention that he did not plan Burchfield’s murder. The two other inmates convicted of the crime have also since recanted their statements against Masters, but California courts have repeatedly upheld his conviction, which makes Winfrey’s involvement in the case that much more critical, according to Masters’s lead attorney.

“Oprah is diligent, she's smart, she's businesslike, and she's committed. She wouldn't just tie her name to anything,” Michael Williams, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, told Yahoo News. “So the fact that Oprah Winfrey has looked into these facts, asked hard questions over many years, and said, 'Is this man really innocent?' … I think that means a lot.”

While in jail, Masters has also undergone his own transformation. A year after being sentenced to death, he began to practice Buddhism. Since then, Pema Chödrön, a renowned Tibetan Buddhist, has also become a close friend and de facto spiritual adviser. It was Chödrön who told Winfrey about Masters’s story, after reading his 2009 memoir.

“My decision to select Jarvis’s memoir was based on its power and the lessons it teaches about the devastating effect that trauma has on children who are deprived of love and subjected to the very worst of the American criminal justice system,” Oprah said, noting that more than anything, it was his calming presence that impressed her when she talked to him on the phone. “When I spoke with Jarvis, I was struck by how present he was and how he has been able to hold onto himself, despite his circumstances.”

Masters and Ani Pema Chödrön lean together, heads touching, for a portrait.  (Courtesy of Free Jarvis: The Campaign to Exonerate Jarvis Jay Masters)
Masters and the Buddhist teacher Ani Pema Chödrön. (Courtesy of Free Jarvis: The Campaign to Exonerate Jarvis Jay Masters)

In prison, Masters has seemingly found a new lease on life. Not only has he written his own autobiography and two other books, but a book has been written about him. He’s gotten married and divorced behind bars and gained legions of supporters and advocates through his devotion to Buddhism.

“I discovered that every bit of love I could conjure up meant that I didn’t have to hate,” Masters wrote on his page.

The slain correction officer’s children have also had their own twisted fate. Burchfield’s oldest daughter, Marjorie Burchfield, who was 14 when her father was killed, says her life was thrown into disarray after his death, and that she spiraled into a world of drugs and addiction before she enlisted in the U.S. Army. Like her father, she eventually became a correctional officer, and she continues to believe that Masters is responsible for her dad’s murder.

“You can ask for forgiveness. You can become a Buddhist. I don’t care [if] you were the pope,” she told the Los Angeles Times late last year. “You did the crime, you have to pay.”

But Burchfield’s youngest child, Jeremiah, who was just 2 years old when his father was killed, says he has studied Masters’s case and has concluded he is innocent. He hopes his voice will be taken into account.

“Sometimes, the judge just looking at the support of the victim’s family does help,” Jeremiah told the Times.

In the years since Master’s conviction, doubts about the case have continued to linger. In 2011, Marin County Superior Court Judge Lynn Duryee determined that the evidence presented in Masters’s appeal did not warrant a new trial, arguing that she had the “scant ability to discern” whether the other inmates’ recanted statements were true. In 2019, nearly 30 years after Masters’s initial conviction, the state Supreme Court affirmed his conviction and death sentence.

In November of 2020, Masters appealed his conviction and sentence again in federal court, with his lawyers arguing that allowing his death sentence to go forward would be a violation of his human rights under the U.S. Constitution. An opinion in that case is expected soon. The judge is said to be considering new evidence, including the recanted statements, as well as confessions from other inmates who said they were the ones responsible for making the metal tip of the weapon used to kill the officer.

A guard stands at the entrance to San Quentin Prison.
A guard stands at the entrance to the California State Prison at San Quentin on Jan. 22, 2007, in San Quentin, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

While the death penalty remains legal in California, no one has been put to death in the state in nearly two decades. Two years ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, imposed a moratorium on executions in the state. This month, officials took further steps to dismantle the practice by making permanent a successful pilot program that moved death row inmates into general population prisons across the state. The governor believes that the death penalty does little to ensure justice and has been tainted by racial bias.

"The prospect of your ending up on death row has more to do with your wealth and race than it does your guilt or innocence," Newsom said last year. "Think about that. We talk about justice, we preach justice. But as a nation, we don't practice it on death row."

It’s also not lost on Williams that while Masters enters his third decade in isolation, nearly all of the legal officials who initially decided Masters's conviction and subsequent appeals have moved on, many to entirely new jobs, including Vice President Kamala Harris, the state’s attorney general at the time of Masters’s first appeal.

“I'd really love to hear what Vice President Harris has to say about this case,” Williams said. “I think that there's probably been a paradigm shift in the way that she views the criminal justice system and some of the things that happened while she was attorney general in California.”

Harris’s office did not return Yahoo News’ request for comment.


Cover thumbnail photos: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Lincoln University, J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo