Rebecca Solnit at Harper's Magazine:
In 1981, when he was nineteen years old, Jarvis Jay Masters given a long sentence for armed robbery, which he describes in his memoir That Bird Has My Wings.Back then, San Quentin was a violent and chaotic place, where prisoners joined gangs for protection; Masters joined one run by other black prisoners. In 1985, when Masters was twenty-three and on the fourth tier of his section of the prison, inmates two tiers below him stabbed to death a thirty-eight-year-old guard named Howell Burchfield. Despite there being no physical evidence linking Masters to the killing, despite the fact that guards found and proceeded to lose or throw away many possible murder weapons, the prosecution accused him of sharpening the weapon and participating in the plan organized by the gang to which he then belonged.
Though both the killer and prisoner who ordered the killing were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, Masters was sentenced to the death penalty at the end of a long, problematic trial. He has lived on death row since 1990. As I explain in my column for the magazine’s March issue (“Bird in a Cage,” Easy Chair) Masters has become a respected writer, a warm and engaging conversationalist with whom I’ve now spoken many times and visited in person twice, and a devout Buddhist and friend to many in the Bay Area Buddhist community. They insist Masters is innocent and that the mountains of evidence amassed by his defense attorneys offer extensive and—to my eye also—convincing support of this position.