Oprah picks California death row inmate’s work for book club

Oprah Winfrey has chosen the autobiography of a California death row inmate – in which he pleads his innocence – as the next reading for her influential book club, she announced Tuesday.

The move would bring immense exposure to Jarvis Jay Masters’ book That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row, first published in 2009 and chronicling Masters’ trauma – and boosting sales Prison and his discovery of Buddhism behind bars.

The selection also highlights Masters’ ongoing legal battle to have his conviction and death sentence overturned for the 1985 murder of a correctional officer at San Quentin State Prison. Masters’ claims of innocence and new evidence to support them are due for the first time next month times to be heard in federal court after being denied by state courts.

Announcing the selection on CBS Mornings, Winfrey said her intention was to “uncover the story” and let people know that there are people on death row “who have had a miscarriage of justice.”

On Instagram, Winfrey called the book “a deft, wise, page-turning account of childhood trauma, his experiences in foster care, his journey through the American justice system, and his spiritual enlightenment on death row.”

On CBS, she said she first learned about the book around 2014 from Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, who is a mentor and friend of Masters.

“I read the book, loved the book, wanted to choose the book [for the] Book Club, or at least get an interview with him then,” Winfrey said on CBS.

She said she called then-California Gov. Jerry Brown and that her team “appealed to the entire prison system” to get an on-camera interview with Masters, but was declined.

She didn’t say why she decided to proceed with the selection now, although Tuesday’s CBS article gave some details about Master’s recent appeal to have his conviction overturned in federal court.

The CBS article included a phone interview with Masters by CBS correspondent David Begnaud, in which Masters told Begnaud that his intention in writing his life story was “to talk to the kids, people who were in danger” in the criminal justice system.

“I saw those faces in this book as I was writing it,” Masters said. “I told her story as well as mine.”

He also staunchly denied any role in the assassination of Sgt. Howell Dean Burchfield, who left a wife and five children.

“I never understood why I was charged because of this,” he said.

Burchfield’s family could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.

Masters, now 60, was abused as a child, abandoned by his parents, and pushed through the foster care system before eventually ending up in San Quentin as a teenager in 1981 for what he admitted to multiple armed robberies.

Four years later, while still in prison, Masters was charged with taking part in the assassination of Burchfield, who was stabbed in the chest while on tour.

The murder was a planned attack by the Black Guerrilla Family gang, which Masters allegedly belonged to. Masters was not charged with stabbing Burchfield but with sharpening the makeshift weapon used in the attack.

Another inmate and gang member named Andre Johnson, who stabbed Burchfield, and a third inmate named Lawrence Woodard, who ordered the attack, were also convicted of murder. However, Masters was the only one of the three to receive the death penalty. Johnson and Woodard were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has imposed a moratorium on executions in the state, but those on California’s death row could still be executed if the moratorium were lifted.

The case against Masters, who had spent years in solitary confinement, was based on the testimonies of several other inmates and on notes outlining the attack found in Masters’ handwriting. But much of the case has fallen apart in the past few years.

The inmates who accused Masters of involvement have recanted. Other inmates have confessed to sharpening the gun. And while Masters has admitted to writing the notes, he said he simply copied other gang members’ writings — something the BGF has been known to have younger inmates do — under orders and threats from gang leaders.

His defense even hired an experienced linguist who compared the writing style of the notes to Masters’ own writing and found that Master did not write the prison notes – even if he copied them.

State courts heard some of the above evidence, including in appeals brought to trial by Masters after his conviction by a jury, but not all. Another inmate’s confession was considered hearsay and ruled out, and a special judge reviewing the case on behalf of the California Supreme Court dismissed the retractions of others, saying the inmates — the same ones the state is relying on in sentencing Masters had left – were liars who could not be trusted.

The California Supreme Court denied Masters’ last request for legal assistance in 2019. His legal team then filed the federal lawsuit, alleging that the state courts violated his constitutional rights in violation of established US Supreme Court precedent. A hearing in the case is scheduled for next month.

Michael Williams, one of Masters’ pro bono attorneys, said federal law requires states to review evidence that would help exonerate a death row prisoner, even when such evidence could otherwise be ignored by technicalities of the law .

Williams said another inmate’s confession, recorded in prison records at the time of the attack and dismissed as hearsay by state courts, fits into that category. He said the body of evidence supporting Masters’ innocence is now substantial and he should be released from prison immediately.

“I’ve never seen such an outrageous case of injustice,” Williams said. “Exonerating Jarvis is not only legally correct, but also ethically correct. Justice will not be served until Jarvis is free.”

Williams said Oprah’s selection of Masters’ book “highlights Jarvis’ amazing story of determination and resilience” and “adds an extra layer of visibility” if the case goes to federal court.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-09-13/oprah-picks-california-death-row-inmates-autobiography-for-book-club Oprah picks California death row inmate’s work for book club

Alley Einstein

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