Eyewitness testimony is one of the most persuasive forms of evidence used in America’s criminal justice system. It is also one of the most unreliable and contributes to the grave injustices that plague our nation. False eyewitness testimony has led to innocent people like Jarvis Jay Masters being stuck on death row for decades. Jarvis was convicted of fashioning a murder weapon—a crime he did not commit—based upon false testimony from a fellow inmate that was later recanted. Eyewitness identification reform is necessary to make Maine’s and the nation’s criminal justice systems more just and equitable.
According to The Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification factored into 69 percent of the 375 cases of exonerated individuals whose convictions have been overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence. These errors have resulted in numerous innocent people spending years behind bars just because someone remembered a detail wrong, couldn’t see a face correctly in poor lighting or allowed their subconscious bias to follow cues from a lineup administrator.
The gross injustices that stem from reliance on eyewitness testimony are even worse when jailhouse deals are involved. These are instances in which the prosecution promises leniency, better treatment or another perk to inmates in exchange for their testimony in cases of crimes committed in prisons. If you are thinking “that is probably not the best recipe for honest testimony,” you would be right.
The case of Jarvis Jay Masters, an innocent man who has spent 32 years on death row for a crime he did not commit, exemplifies the broader problem within our criminal justice system. Trials are supposed to uncover the truth about who committed a crime, but this is impossible if the case is built upon false eyewitness testimony.
It is worth noting that this injustice falls disproportionately on non-white, poorer individuals who are incarcerated, convicted and sentenced to death at much higher rates than their wealthier or white counterparts. Reliance on unreliable eyewitness testimony contributes greatly to the injustices of our current system and helps to show why eyewitness identification reform is necessary in Maine and across the country.
Jarvis was convicted in 1990 for allegedly forging the weapon used to murder a prison guard in California’s San Quentin State Prison. While the man who ordered the killing and the man who committed the murder both received the lesser sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, Jarvis, who was accused of a less severe crime, was the only one of the three defendants sentenced to death for his role in the incident. His conviction rested on eyewitness testimony from jailhouse informants who later recanted their statements, admitting that they had lied at the original trial to receive favorable treatment in their own cases. The inmate convicted of the stabbing provided a sworn statement that Jarvis was not involved in the crime.
Unfortunately, none of these post-conviction revelations have led to Jarvis’ release. The same statements that were enough to convict Jarvis were not sufficient to exonerate him when recanted. An innocent man remains behind bars, waiting to die in San Quentin solely due to errors of the court and false eyewitness testimony of jailhouse informants.
However, not all hope is lost. Jarvis’s case is scheduled for a federal appeals hearing in the Northern District of California on October 27, where he will finally have the chance he deserves to present additional evidence to clear his name. Additionally, his case is getting attention thanks to Oprah Winfrey choosing his book for her influential Book Club. I am hopeful that these developments will help Jarvis gain his freedom.
It is easy to turn a blind eye to the incarcerated, but Jarvis’s story is by no stretch an anomaly. According to the Georgia Innocence Project, 4-6% of people in prison are innocent. That means out of a prison population of 2.3 million, there are between 92,000 and 138,000 innocent people in prison. These staggering numbers completely undermine the credibility of our justice system. How many other people are waiting to die at the hands of a state executioner because someone lied about their involvement in a crime or misremembered the perpetrator’s face? Jarvis’s story mirrors that of thousands of others who have fallen victim to the same cracks in our broken criminal justice system. Eyewitness testimony is one of the major failures that need to be addressed.
While Maine performs relatively well across a number of criminal justice metrics, it has not yet enacted eyewitness testimony reforms. Allowing this problematic practice to continue contributes to the incarceration of innocent people.
Maine can take corrective steps to improve the validity of its criminal justice system and reduce the likelihood of a wrongful conviction. A great place to start is by overhauling the state’s eyewitness identification procedures. Easy changes include having lineup administrators provide witnesses with clear instructions that they do not have to choose someone from the lineup, making witnesses provide a confidence rating in their selection following the identification or instating a “double-blind” procedure in which the administrator does not know who the suspect is, preventing them from providing subconscious cues to the witness. Taking these steps would help improve the status quo by decreasing the likelihood of innocent people like Jarvis being unjustly convicted of crimes they did not commit.
Reforms in Maine may not seem like they would impact a death row case in California. But Jarvis’s case draws attention to changes we can make here in Maine and across the country. You can help bring justice to people like Jarvis Jay Masters and compel our criminal justice system to require greater scrutiny before incarcerating innocent people. I urge you to use your platform and harness your voice to demand #JusticeforJarvis. Together, we can help bring justice to innocent people who have had their lives and freedom snuffed out by the shortcomings of our criminal justice system.
Ryan Kovarovics is a member of the Class of 2023.