- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 31, 2000

As he walked the cell block armed only with a flashlight and cigarette lighter, so that he could light cigarettes for inmates, San Quentin correctional officer Dean Burchfield was stabbed with a sharp piece of steel. He collapsed and bled to death. He was 38.

Barbara Burchfield vividly remembers the day — June 8, 1985. After her husband died, the family developed photographs taken at the 18th birthday party of the eldest of their five children. The party was held just hours before the murder, the widow told me last week on the phone, and in the photos he was holding their 2-year-old baby.

Five years later, California juries found three inmates affiliated with the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) gang guilty of the killing. According to court records, the BGF decided to kill four prison guards to start a prison war; BGF worked out a pact, later dropped, with the Crips gang that each gang would kill two guards.

Jurors recommended the death penalty for two defendants. Judge Beverly Savitt chose to sentence one to life without parole, but let stand the death sentence for the other, Jarvis Jay Masters, a San Quentin inmate serving a 22 year sentence for a spate of armed robberies. Marin County District Attorney Paula Kamena, who tried the case, explained that the evidence against Masters was “”overwhelming.” She added, “”He sharpened and made the weapon and helped put it in the hands of the killer.”

This is the Internet Age, and now Masters' supporters have a Web page, www.freejarvis.org/ index.htm. The site is a monument to the eagerness of some death-penalty supporters to believe everything good about death-row inmates, and everything bad about people in the criminal justice system. “”Jarvis is an easy man to respect and an easy man to love,” one groupie writes. “”What I learn from him all the time is what it really means to keep one's vows of not harming and of helping other people in whatever ways one can.”

There is something about death row that turns guys into sensitive, nonviolent philosophers. Masters is now a Buddhist. A Buddhist who has not repented for the murder. His fans, you see, consider the conviction to be “”wrongful.” The site lists seven reasons why Masters “”does not belong on Death Row.” Not one of them says Masters didn't have anything to do with Dean Burchfield's death.

The reasons are:

  1. Someone else stabbed Burchfield … which is true.
  2. It's not fair that Masters get the death penalty when the two others didn't, (maybe maybe that's an argument for not giving him a lethal injection, but if you go by the Web site name, these people want to free Jarvis).
  3. “”The prosecution's evidence showed that any role Jarvis allegedly had in the purported conspiracy was less than the others' roles.”
  4. He was denied a separate trial.
  5. A jailhouse informant testified against him.
  6. The notes about the murder plot were in Masters' handwriting because gang members forced him to write the notes.
  7. Last but not least: “”Jarvis has diligently worked to transform himself.”

Attorneys Joe Baxter and Rick Targow are working on Masters' appeal. Baxter told me that Masters is not guilty, that Masters' trial attorneys were not allowed to “”put on their defense at trial,” and that a witness misidentified Masters. If their claims actually happen to be true, may they win their appeal.

Of course, you have to wonder why this defense is not the focus of the Free Jarvis Web site. And why Masters has been able to garner support and endorsements for his wonderful character with a site that attacks the guilty verdict for dubious reasons, and even boasts that the prosecution produced evidence that tied him to the crime, but not as much as it tied the other guys.

Baxter explained that the Web site doesn't set out his defense because “”we don't want anything done that would compromise the (death-penalty appeal) investigation. We've instructed them” … the Free Jarvis Web site folks … “”not to get into matters that have nothing to do with the incident.” That's what Baxter said. Thing is, the “”he's not guilty” argument wasn't even necessary to draw people into reading the site who would want to join the Free Jarvis chorus.

Barbara Burchfield doesn't understand it. “”They seem to forget that five children have been deprived of their father. Every time there was a birthday, every time there was a holiday, any time there was a significant reason to celebrate, his place at the table was empty.”

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