Jarvis Jay Masters, a Buddhist and author, was convicted and sentenced to death in California for the 1985 murder of corrections officer Sergeant Hal Birchfield. Masters has since maintained his innocence and has written his autobiography, This Bird Has Its Wings, a September 2022 pick for Oprah’s Book Club. Winfrey. In November 2020, Masters appealed his conviction and sentencing for the first time in federal court, and a federal judge is expected to issue a written decision in the case in the fall of 2022.
In June 1985, Sergeant Hal Birchfield, a father of five, was stabbed in the chest while making the rounds at San Quentin State Prison. Masters, a member of the Black Gorilla Family (BGF) prison gang, said he had nothing to do with the murder. However, another prisoner and fellow BGF Masters are ordered to copy notes detailing the murderous plot. In one note, known as “kites” because they were passed between cells on a string, the killing weapon was described as being so sharp that it could “cut a T-bone.” “Kites” became key evidence against him in a trial that lasted until 1990. A jury convicted Masters of murder and conspiracy to commit murder for his alleged role in making the metal spear tip. Two other inmates, including the prisoner who stabbed the correctional officer and the black guerrilla family gang leader who ordered the killing, were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, the professors were sentenced to death.
In the nearly 40 years since Burchfield’s murder, the two men who testified against Masters have retracted their testimony. Masters’ lawyers hired linguistics experts who determined that “Kites” were written by someone else, even if the professor copied them. According to Masters, Rufus Willis, another BGF leader who was the state’s main witness at the trial, ordered him to transcribe the notes. Willis was granted immunity from the murder because he offered to testify against other gang members. Masters alleges Welles falsely identified him as an accomplice and urged an investigator with the Marin County District Attorney’s Office for Willis to gather more evidence against him. Willis retracted his testimony that Masters was involved. Bobby Evans, a well-known detective, retracted his testimony that Masters had confessed to his role in the murder. Harold Richardson, a prisoner who secretly met with the program director in San Quentin to discuss his desire to break out of the gang, allegedly said that others had prepared the weapon and that he had sharpened the metal tip. Richardson’s confession was available at the time of Masters’ trial but was not accepted as evidence. The judge who heard the state’s appeal ruled that the admission was an unreliable hearsay.
In 2008, the California Supreme Court stated that a special judge should be appointed to conduct a new review of the facts because there were a sufficient number of legitimate legal questions surrounding Masters’ conviction and death sentence. In 2011, former Marin County Superior Court Judge Lynn Dorey presented the report and stated that there was “no agreement” among inmates on the “basic facts.” Duryee concluded that although the Masters was convicted and sentenced to death based on the words of Willis and Evans, their word “meaning nothing” and could not be used to exonerate him. The California Supreme Court relied on Duryee’s findings in dismissing Masters’ subsequent appeal. Masters supporters believe it is unfair for Masters to be sentenced to death for allegedly making the gun when the other prisoner who made the gun was sentenced to life in prison.
The Masters case received additional attention in September 2022 when Oprah Winfrey chose his file Curriculum Vitae
for her book club. She described his book as “a clever and wise account of his childhood trauma, his experiences in foster care, his journey through the American justice system, and his spiritual enlightenment while awaiting execution.” She also expressed her belief in his innocence. “I just feel that any reasonable person, reading the facts of this case, would at least want to reopen the case so that you at least know you made the best effort to do justice,” Winfrey said. Masters’ attorneys argue in his federal appeal that his initial trial had so many constitutional issues that the state courts had incorrectly ignored.
Prior to his conviction for the 1985 murder of Sergeant Hal Birchfield, Masters was imprisoned in San Quentin for armed robbery at age 19. As a child, Masters was neglected by his biological parents and abused by his adoptive parents. Masters clearly wrote about his shock in his autobiography. His lawyers defended his leniency by citing his traumatic childhood. “There has to be a place in our jurisprudence that allows for empathy,” said Michael Satris, Masters’ attorney at the time.
Hal Birchfield’s children are still grieving over their father’s death, and are divided in their beliefs about the Master’s guilt or innocence. Marjorie Birchfield, the eldest child in the family, said the murder ruined her childhood. She experienced homelessness and was addicted to drugs for years before enlisting in the US Army and later becoming a correctional officer like her father. She believes Masters is guilty and agrees with the jury’s decision to sentence him to death. On the other hand, her brothers JD and Jeremiah Birchfield believe in Masters’ innocence. JD said he opposes the death penalty because it “deprives people of the chance of salvation.” Jeremiah said, “If a man is deceived to his liberty and imprisoned without cause does not do justice to my father. It is just ignorance.”
Masters said he was hurt by Marin County Superior Court Judge Beverly Savitt’s decision to uphold the death sentence. “The only way you can put someone on death row is to dehumanize them,” Masters said.