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Oprah believes he’s innocent. I hope the court will agree: Free the Buddhist on death row.

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The first time I met Jarvis Jay Masters, we were on opposite sides of a smeared glass partition in a roomful of convicted killers at California’s San Quentin State Prison.

It’s not a setting conducive to building trust. Encouraged by one of his friends and supporters, I had come to visit Masters, whom she said was innocent of the crime that put him on death row. I approached the meeting with a journalist’s skepticism. I knew Masters was an award-winning author and had converted to Buddhism. Still, many guilty inmates and prison writers claim innocence, say they’ve found God and have gained supporters outside prison walls.

We talked through a tinny prison telephone for an hour and a half. Masters was open, earnest, thoughtful and funny. However, charm does not equal innocence. After a guard signaled that the visit was over and led Masters away, I left the cellblock, ruminating about the meeting.

Flawed trial amounted to a second tragedy of injustice

I contemplated writing about Masters, but first I wanted to find the truth about his case. When I investigated, I understood why his supporters were so fervent pursuing his exoneration and release. The crime for which he was convicted was a terrible one, but I came to the same conclusion as his advocates: He had nothing to do with it.

From prosecutorial misconduct to false testimony to 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 inmate who ordered the killing and the one who stabbed the officer. Masters, accused of fashioning the murder weapon, was also convicted. However, the other two men were sentenced to life imprisonment while Masters alone received the death penalty.

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

The prosecution’s three key witnesses later admitted that they testified against Masters in exchange for leniency in their own cases and recanted their testimonies. In fact, every witness with firsthand knowledge about the plan to kill Sgt. Burchfield admitted that Masters was not involved.

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

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

At a hearing I attended in 2011, a California judge acknowledged that false testimony was likely presented at Masters’ original trial and yet still dismissed the witness recantations, arguing they lacked credibility. Bafflingly, these then-inmates were deemed credible enough to convict Masters – at a time they were incentivized to lie – but not credible enough to exonerate him when they no longer had anything to gain.

Oprah chooses Masters’ autobiography for book club

Following a thorough examination, 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 for good inside and outside prison walls, working with fellow inmates and corrections officers, encouraging them to find nonviolent ways to resolve conflicts.

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

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

I also learned how Masters took his painful childhood of poverty and abuse, the crimes he committed as a youth, his incarceration and finding faith and put it all on paper. His books and articles, which have been taught in schools, have won him readers and supporters around 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 chose his memoir, “That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row,” as her September book club pick and has proclaimed she believes that 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 book club in September 2022.

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

Every day Masters is kept in a 9-by-4-foot cell for a crime he did not commit is further injustice. Even Sgt. Burchfield’s son, Jeremiah, has stated publicly: “Justice for Jarvis is also justice for my father, the right people need to hold that responsibility.”

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Masters’ story is that of one innocent man, but it is not one person’s story. Too many innocent people are languishing behind bars. A study funded by the Department of Justice estimates that the rate of wrongful convictions is up to 11.6% – or more than 230,000 people of nearly 2 million held in prisons and jails throughout the USA.

And research by the National Academy of Sciences showed that 4% of people on America’s death rows are there because of “erroneous convictions.”

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

As a society, if we cannot acknowledge these wrongful conviction cases and rectify them in a timely manner, our so-called criminal justice system is perpetuating injustice, and we’re harming 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 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 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.” Follow him on Twitter: @david_sheff

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This column is part of a series by USA TODAY Opinion about police accountability and building safer communities. The project began in 2021 by examining qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by examining various ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to [email protected]

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oprah believes Justice for Jarvis: Time to free Buddhist on death row

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