Oprah Winfrey has selected “That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row” by inmate Jarvis Jay Masters as her latest pick for Oprah’s Book Club. The autobiography follows Masters’ journey as a hardened kid on the street whose life took a turn while serving time in prison.
“Number one: My intention is to expose the story,” Winfrey told CBS News lead national correspondent David Begnaud. “Number two: My intention is to let people know that there are a lot of people on death row and a lot of people in prison for whom there has been a miscarriage of justice.”
.@Oprah’s next Book Club selection is “That Bird Has My Wings,” by Jarvis Jay Masters, who has maintained his innocence while incarcerated on death row for over 30 years. His memoir shares a powerful message of hope, and deep insight into how our childhoods shape us. #ReadWithUs pic.twitter.com/mWIbS6PF34
— Oprah’s Book Club (@oprahsbookclub)
In 1981, Masters arrived at San Quentin State Prison to serve a 20-year sentence for armed robbery. As a runaway child abandoned by his parents, Masters told Begnaud that as a youth he was involved in “a bunch” of armed robberies, recalling his first arrest at the age of 12.
“I just needed the money,” he said in an interview from the prison.
Masters was moved to death row four years into serving his sentence after he was convicted of playing a role in the murder of prison guard Howell Dean Burchfield. Masters was never accused of committing the fatal stabbing by inmates, but was implicated for making the weapon used in the crime.
But Masters has maintained his innocence, saying that he did not have anything to do with making the murder tool.
Winfrey said she too does not believe that Masters committed the crime which landed him on death row. She first read his newest book in 2014, after it was recommended by Buddhist spiritual teacher Pema Chödrön.
“One of the things that sparked the fire for me, he talks about the thing that carried him through life was holding onto the love that people had shared with him, you know, in spite of, you know, his mother being a heroin addict, in spite of all the crazy, violent things that were happening in their house,” Winfrey said.
Since learning of his story, Winfrey has worked to find legal representation to fight for Masters’ exoneration. Lead defense attorney Michael Williams said the team has made some discoveries on the case.
“At the time that Jarvis was convicted, the state of California had in their possession a confession by another individual saying that he had committed the crime. Not Jarvis,” Williams told Begnaud.
Williams said that the confession comes from people critically involved in the case whose testimony was used to convict Masters.
“When you have an innocent man on death row, it’s not just one person who said something that was wrong,” Williams said.
Now a practicing Buddhist, Masters says he has grown from the young man he once was.
“I think what changed me is becoming 23 and now becoming 60 and everything in between, and yes, Buddhism helped me and it really, really exposed the suffering that we all live inside us,” he said.
Award-winning author David Sheff who wrote “The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place,” which details Masters’ story, said the inmate has since tried to help people while serving time in prison.
“Jarvis embraced this new path of committing himself to trying to alleviate suffering in every way that he could,” Sheff told Begnaud. “He stopped at least two people from being stabbed in the yard.”
Sheff, who said he believes in Masters’ innocence, said he doesn’t believe Masters would be on death row had he initially had “real representation.”
A federal hearing is scheduled for October 27, where the state of California’s attorney general’s office will have a chance to counter. The office did not respond to CBS News’ request for an interview and the state wrote that it refused to answer questions.