Excerpt from The Buddhist on Death Row by David Sheff, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Buddhist on Death Row

How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place

by David Sheff

The Buddhist on Death Row by David Sheff X
The Buddhist on Death Row by David Sheff
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2020, 272 pages
    Jun 2021, 272 pages


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Valerie Morales
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Print Excerpt


In the spring of 1986, Melody Ermachild ventured inside the imposing brick-and-stone edifice of San Quentin State Prison to meet her new client, Jarvis Jay Masters, a twenty-four-year-old African American kid from Harbor City, California. Masters had arrived at San Quentin five years earlier after being convicted of thirteen counts of armed robbery and sentenced to twenty years in prison. He'd subsequently been charged with conspiring to kill a prison guard and making the knife used in the murder. He had been moved to the Adjustment Center—solitary confinement—and was now on trial. If he was found guilty, he could be put to death.

Masters wore a navy blue knit cap pulled down to his eyes. He leaned back in his chair, arms folded across his chest, and barely acknowledged her. She explained that she was a criminal investigator hired by his legal team to write a social history of his life. If he was convicted, they hoped her report would help his lawyers convince the judge and jury that he should be spared the death penalty. To prepare the report, she would need to interview him, his family, his foster parents, and others who'd known him.

When she mentioned his family, Masters broke his silence. "Keep them out of it," he growled. His eyes, cold and blank until then, were blazing. "They have nothing to say about me."

He said no more during that meeting, and he kept his sullen silence throughout a dozen more visits during which Melody reviewed the case against him and tried to get him to open up.

One morning, Melody showed up in the visiting booth on crutches. She'd been rock climbing and had fallen, rupturing her Achilles tendon.

As usual, she pulled out files and notebooks. Also as usual, Masters regarded her with disdainful silence.

Suddenly Melody snapped, "Do you think this is a joke?" He was startled.

"They want to kill you!" she said, her voice rising.

She had never blown up at a client before, and she immediately apologized.

"It's not just my leg," she explained. In her distress, she set aside her usual professional demeanor and poured out the reasons for her despondency. "I had a baby when I was a teenager, and I was forced to put him up for adoption," she said. "I never got over it. After twenty years, I just heard from my son and we met."

Jarvis stared.

"It was wonderful meeting him, just what I'd always wanted, but it stirred up a lot. I've been spending a lot of time crying."

After a pause, she added, "I've been thinking a lot about my childhood. My father died when I was little. My mother was depressed, and she would"—Melody stopped and inhaled—"she would beat us. Later I got pregnant, and they threw me out. I found a home for pregnant girls, where the baby was born. I thought about killing myself. Many times."

Jarvis spoke for the first time. "That is some fucked-up shit." His perfect summation made her smile.

Their eyes met briefly; then he looked away.

Jarvis was less hostile after that. Sometimes he arrived in the visiting room as taciturn as ever, but other times he was less guarded. He began to consider her questions seriously and answer them honestly. They talked about the case and his past, though the conversations sometimes stirred up painful memories and he would shut down. Ultimately, though, he agreed to let her interview his family.

Melody flew to Los Angeles to meet his mother, Cynthia Campbell, whom Jarvis hadn't seen for seven years, since the day of his arrest that landed him in San Quentin in 1981. After he was implicated

in a string of armed robberies, police issued an APB for him, and Jarvis hid out at one friend's house after another, no place more than a couple of nights. One afternoon he was at his sister's apartment. A police scanner was on, and he heard them coming. But there wasn't time to run. A voice from a bullhorn told him to come outside with his hands up.

From The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place by David Sheff. Copyright © 2020 by David Sheff. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

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