SAN FRANCISCO (CBS) — The California Supreme Court in San Francisco on Monday upheld the death penalty of a San Quentin State Prison inmate for the murder of a prison guard in 1985.
Jarvis Masters, 54, was one of three members of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang at San Quentin who, according to prosecutors, conspired in the stabbing murder of Sgt. Dean Burchfield on June 8, 1985.
Masters’ role, according to testimony by inmates in his 1989-90 Marin County Superior Court trial, was to sharpen a prison-made knife and pass it to Andre Johnson, who carried out the stabbing.
Masters, Johnson and a third inmate, Lawrence Woodard, were convicted of first-degree murder. Masters was sentenced to death and the other two were sentenced to life in prison without parole.
At the time of the murder, Masters, of the Harbor City neighborhood of Los Angeles, was serving a 20-year sentence for 12 robberies he committed in the Los Angeles area at age 18.
The seven-member high court unanimously upheld his murder conviction and death penalty in a decision by Justice Goodwin Liu.
Joseph Baxter, one of Masters’ lawyers in the appeal, said he will ask the court for a rehearing, and if that is unsuccessful, will petition the U.S. Supreme Court for review.
Baxter said one key issue in the appeal is Masters’ claim that the judge who conducted a pretrial preliminary examination should have granted Masters’ request for a lineup after an inmate testifying for the prosecution
gave a description that allegedly did not match Masters’ physical characteristics.
The inmate, Rufus Willis, described Masters as being shorter, older and huskier than he actually was, did not remember a tattoo on his cheek and incorrectly said he wore glasses, according to Masters’ attorneys.
Masters was not in the preliminary hearing courtroom when Willis gave that description.
“He was (described as) fat where he was thin and short where he was tall,” Baxter said.
In Monday’s decision, the state Supreme Court said Masters was not denied a fair trial because his defense lawyers had the opportunity to challenge Willis’ initial description during the trial itself.
Masters also has pending before the state Supreme Court a habeas corpus petition in which he argues that evidence discovered after the trial indicates that Willis and another inmate testified falsely about Masters’ role in the plot.
In 2008, the state Supreme Court took the unusual step of ordering a Marin County Superior Court judge to prepare a report on the claims.
After holding a 13-day hearing in 2011, Superior Court Judge Lynn Duryee issued a report stating that “although it is likely that some false (but not coerced) evidence was offered at trial,” the two inmate witnesses were “both liars with highly unreliable and selective memories.”
Duryee said the alleged new evidence “likely would have made no difference in the outcome of the case.”
The report and final briefs in the habeas corpus case are now before the state Supreme Court. A date for the panel to hear arguments on the petition has not yet been set.
Masters has become a Buddhist and written a book of poetry while in prison, Baxter said.
Executions in California have been on hold for the past decade because of court challenges to lethal injection procedures. The administration of Gov. Jerry Brown is currently developing a plan to replace a three-drug execution protocol with a one-drug procedure.
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