The California Supreme Court has upheld the death sentence for a man in the death of a prison guard, despite questionable testimony by prosecution witnesses.
The case involves Jarvis Masters, one of three Black Guerrilla Family members convicted in 1985 for the killing of Correctional Sgt. Dean Burchfield at San Quentin.
Andre Johnson was convicted of stabbing Burchfield to death. Lawrence Woodard was convicted of ordering the killing. And Masters was convicted of helping plan the killing, sharpening the knife used in the attack, and giving it to Johnson, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Aug. 14.
Prosecution witness Rufus Willis originally testified that Masters helped in the planning, sharpening the knife before giving it to Johnson. He said later that the prosecutor threatened him, saying he would be sent back to prison if he did not cooperate.
Willis reported he feared for his own life, because he was a known informant.
Three prosecution wit- nesses have recanted, saying they testified falsely at trial.
Bobby Evans also testified against Masters but did not disclose at the time of trial that he had been given a deal in a separate case in exchange for his testimony against Masters.
The court, upholding the conviction and death sentence in 2016, sent the new post- trial allegations for review to former Marin County Judge Lynn Duryee.
“Witnesses against Masters were ‘liars with highly unreliable and selective memories’ ”
After reviewing all the testimony, she concluded that the chief prosecution witnesses against Masters were “liars with highly unreliable and selective memories” as well as “career criminals and well-known snitches.”
The recantations were no more believable than their original testimony, the Chronicle article noted.
The court, upon hearing those findings, reaffirmed Masters’ conviction and sentence.
Justice Goodwin Liu wrote that Masters’ attorney had challenged the credibility of Willis at trial, and presented evidence that Evans had been an informant in other cases.
Having heard all the evidence, the jury still found Masters guilty. The additional evidence reviewed by Duryee would not have changed the outcome.
Justice Liu, joined by Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, wrote in a second opinion that it was understandable that Masters found Duryee’s report unsettling due to the lies she attributed to the star witnesses.
Masters’ attorney Joseph Baxter called the ruling “absurd.”
“The court is saying, if the case is rotten to the core, it doesn’t matter, because the court can’t tell if you’re lying now or if you were lying then. Jarvis Masters has never had a fair trial.”
Masters, now 57, is from Los Angeles. He has become a Buddhist, counseling to ther inmates on Death Row.