Oprah believes he is innocent. I hope the court agrees with me: release the Buddhist on death row.


The first time I met Jarvis Jay Masters, we sat on opposite sides of a stained glass wall in a room full of convicted murderers at California’s San Quentin State Prison.

It is not an environment conducive to building trust. Encouraged by one of his friends and supporters, I had come to see Masters, who she said was innocent of the crime that had put him on death row. I approached the meeting with the skepticism of a journalist. I knew that Masters was an award-winning author and had converted to Buddhism. Yet many guilty inmates and prison writers claim their innocence, say they have found God and gained followers beyond prison walls.

We talked for an hour and a half on a tinny prison phone. Masters was open, serious, attentive and funny. However, charm does not equate to innocence. After a guard signaled that the visit was over and led Masters away, I left the cellblock and pondered the encounter.

Flawed process amounted to a second tragedy of injustice

I considered writing about Masters, but first I wanted to find out the truth about his case. When I researched it, I understood why his supporters so fervently pursued his release and release. The crime he was convicted of was terrible, but I came to the same conclusion as his lawyers: He had nothing to do with it.

From prosecutorial misconduct to false testimony and questionable evidence, his trial was so flawed that it amounted to a second tragedy, compounding that of the original crime.

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In 1985, inmates murdered a San Quentin prison guard, Sgt. Howell “Hal” Burchfield. Three men were convicted, including the prisoner who ordered the murder and the one who stabbed the officer. Masters, charged with manufacturing the murder weapon, was also convicted. However, the other two men were sentenced to life imprisonment, while only Masters received the death penalty.

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I learned that critical evidence of Masters’s innocence was withheld from the jury, including the fact that a man fitting the primary eyewitness description had confessed to Masters’ alleged role.

The prosecution’s three key witnesses later admitted to testifying against Masters in exchange for clemency in their own cases and recanted their testimony. In fact, any witness with firsthand knowledge of the plan to kill Sgt. Burchfield admitted that Masters was not involved.

David Sheff, left, and Jarvis Jay Masters in 2020 during one of their encounters at San Quentin State Prison in California.

At a hearing I attended in 2011, a California judge acknowledged that false testimony was likely given at Masters’ original trial, yet rejected the witnesses’ recantations, arguing that they lacked credibility. Astoundingly, these then-inmates were deemed credible enough to convict Masters – at a time when they were incentivized to lie – but not credible enough to exonerate him when they had nothing left to gain.

Oprah chooses Masters’ autobiography for book club

After a thorough research, I decided to write about Masters and returned to San Quentin for hundreds of interviews with him. I learned that his Buddhist faith was neither superficial nor feigned; he channeled it forever inside and outside the prison walls, working with fellow inmates and prison guards and encouraging them to find nonviolent ways to resolve conflict.

Jarvis Jay Masters' books and articles, which have been taught in schools, have earned him readers and supporters around the world.

Jarvis Jay Masters’ books and articles, which have been taught in schools, have earned him readers and followers around the world.

I also learned how Masters chronicled his painful childhood of poverty and abuse, the crimes he committed as a youth, his incarceration and finding faith. His books and articles, which have been taught in schools, have earned him readers and followers all over the world.

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One was the Buddhist nun and popular author Pema Chodron, who became his Buddhist teacher.

Another was Oprah Winfrey, who singled out his memoir “That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row” as her book club pick in September and has proclaimed that she believes Masters is innocent.

Oprah Winfrey chose Jarvis Jay Masters' autobiography, "That Bird Has My Wings,"  for her book club in September 2022.

Oprah Winfrey chose Jarvis Jay Masters’ autobiography, “That Bird Has My Wings”, for her September 2022 book club.

Masters has been on death row for more than three decades, including 22 years in solitary confinement. He is awaiting a federal court decision on his habeas petition. That is, every day a federal judge will rule on an appeal that could ultimately exonerate him.

Every day Masters being held in a 9-by-4-foot cell for a crime he didn’t commit is even more wrong. Even Sgt. Burchfield’s son Jeremiah has publicly stated, “Justice for Jarvis is justice for my father too, the right people need that responsibility.”

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The story of Masters is that of one innocent man, but it is not the story of one person. Too many innocent people languish behind bars. A Justice Department-funded study estimates wrongful conviction rates as high as 11.6% — or more than 230,000 of the nearly 2 million people held in US prisons and prisons.

And research by the National Academy of Sciences showed that 4% of people on U.S. death row are there because of “wrong convictions.”

Defendants who can appeal their convictions are forced to fight against a broken system that can take years and, in some cases, decades of filings, motions, and hearings.

If we as a society cannot recognize these cases of wrongful convictions and correct them in a timely manner, our so-called criminal justice system perpetuates injustice and harms individuals, families and communities.

Freeing Jarvis Masters is a start.

David Sheff is the author of the bestseller "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction"  and, most recently, of The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place."

David Sheff is the author of the bestselling book “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction” and, most recently, “The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place.”

David Sheff is the author of the bestselling book “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction” and, most recently, “The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place.” Follow him on Twitter: @david_sheff

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This column is part of a USA TODAY Opinion series on police accountability and building safer communities. The project began exploring qualified immunity in 2021 and will continue in 2022 to explore different ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which provides no editorial input.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oprah Believes Justice for Jarvis: Time to Free Buddhist on Death Row


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