Exec who launched stars like Katy Perry and Kid Rock is now helping free the innocent



Category: Wrongful Convictions

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

There are nearly 2 million people currently incarcerated in the United States. Many of them sit locked up for months or even years because of wrongful convictions.

There have been at least 2,500 exonerations added to an official registry since 1989 and the number keeps rising. But an executive responsible for some of the biggest acts in music is among those leading the fight to make sure innocent people don’t spend another day in prison.

From Katy Perry to Kid Rock, Lorde to Skid Row, Jason Flom has an ear for discovering talent that’s going all the way to the top. But the legendary music executive behind Lava Records also has an eye for people languishing at the very bottom of society: men and women behind bars for crimes they claim they did not commit.

It started back in the 90s, with a man named Steven Lennon who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for drug possession. After reading about the case, Flom called an attorney who worked with one of the bands he’d discovered and got involved.

When the judge banged the gavel down and sent him home I went, ‘Oh my God. I have a superpower’. It never occurred to me this could be done. I was like, ‘This is a great feeling. I like this. I want to do more of that’. So that’s how it started. It was like a eureka moment,” Flom explained.

That moment sent Flom headfirst down a new path as an advocate for criminal justice reform. He’s a founding board member of the Innocence Project which says that since 1993, it’s received letters from more than 65,000 inmates seeking help proving their innocence. Since 2016 Flom has put a spotlight on dozens of those using the “Wrongful Conviction” podcast, where he takes over the microphone once reserved for the stars he produces.

We have to highlight the fact that there are people who are being punished for things they had nothing to do with, and no knowledge of. And the fact is, if you don’t think this can happen to you, this can happen to you, or it can happen to someone you love,” said Flom. “It’s not even complicated. Once you get arrested, the downhill slide starts very quickly and it just gathers momentum. There are things we can do to help prevent these wrongful convictions from happening.”

In hundreds of conversations with experts, advocates, attorneys, and even people themselves serving time, Flom delves into the darkness of injustice. It’s in those conversations that potential new evidence is shared, new theories tested. And there’s one goal for each highlighted case: exoneration.

Spotlight on America asked Flom what it says about the criminal justice system that it takes podcasts and other media platforms to overturn convictions.

It says our criminal justice system needs to be overhauled from top to bottom,” he told us.” People say it’s broken, it’s not really broken. It’s actually operating the way it was designed to operate. I think one of the main problems is it’s so far over capacity that there’s no time to pay attention to the actual facts in different cases.”

In many cases, Flom says, those key facts may have been overlooked, dismissed or distorted, leading to miscarriages of justice that predominantly involve people of color.

Data from the Innocence Project shows 58% of the wrongful conviction cases they’ve been part of involved Black individuals, with an additional 7% involving Latinx people. The organization cites eyewitness misidentification and misapplied forensic science among the common causes of wrongful convictions.

Although platforms like “Wrongful Conviction” are among those shining a light on new details that can be game-changing in cases across the country, the impact doesn’t happen overnight. Overturning a verdict is arduous work, with innocent people spending years or even decades locked up, waiting for action once the truth has come to light.

Jon-Adrian Velazquez, known to friends and family as “JJ”, is one of the dozens of wrongfully convicted individuals who have benefited from the media spotlight. He spent 23 years, seven months and eight days in a New York prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

During a conversation with Spotlight on America Velazquez said, “Each one of those days mattered and I can never get that back. No one in this world is capable of giving me the time that I lost. No one in this world is capable of giving my mother back the time she lost. No one’s capable of giving my two sons, the father that they never had throughout all of their youthful years.”

Velazquez was freed just this past September, almost a decade after new reporting on his case first forced prosecutors to re-examine how he ended up there to begin with. He tells us he’s adjusting to life again on the outside, now working with the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice, a job that takes him inside the same kind of prison walls that held him for half his life. The goal is to drive change by bringing people inside the facilities that house thousands of American inmates, and providing opportunities to talk with the incarcerated face-to-face.

They say it takes a village to raise a child,” said Velazquez. “Well, it’s going to take a nation to change the state of wrongful convictions.”

Velazquez was a vocal force for criminal justice reform during his time in prison. That continues now as he works with Flom and others, sharing his story with the public.

“I don’t do these talks so that people can understand my story. I do these talks so that they can understand how real wrongful convictions are and they can try to start looking at things differently,” he said. “I’m hoping that jurors’ minds are changed by listening to our stories because they have power that they don’t understand.”

The power of podcasting on platforms like “Wrongful Convictions” impacts the lives of real people, introducing audiences to their cases and the flaws that sent them to prison. They include Texas mother Melissa Lucio, who was just granted a stay of execution after her attorneys say she was coerced into a confession that landed her on death row following the death of her child, and Pennsylvania barber Jerome Loach, who served a decade for a robbery that took place while he was performing in a church production.

Every time I hear a story, I think it can’t get worse than that. And then it does,” said podcast host Maggie Freleng. “This doesn’t just destroy one person’s life. It destroys entire families, entire communities.”

Freleng’s job is to reconstruct cases and shine a light on the problems associated with mass incarceration. She’ll be behind the mic as a second host as the “Wrongful Conviction” podcast expands in May, to make room for even more stories. The first episode of “Wrongful Conviction with Maggie Freleng” focuses on the case of Patty Prewitt, a Missouri woman sentenced to life in prison. You can hear it by clicking here

The work on cases like Prewitt’s, is incredibly personal for Freleng, who has become accustomed to hearing her phone ring at all hours from collect calls from prisons. For years, she’s made frequent visits to see inmates behind bars, chasing down leads in their cases, reporting for various platforms.

“Every person that I interview says, ‘I knew that this could happen, but I never thought it would happen to me or I never thought I’d just be walking down the street one day, thrown into a cop car and picked up for a murder’,” Freleng explained. “It can happen. And I want people to know it does happen, and we need to stop it from happening.”

That’s Jason Flom’s goal too. He says music will always be his passion. But freeing the innocent has become his mission. He said, “I’m going to keep doing this until I run out of breath to take because unfortunately, we’ll never run out of stories to tell.”

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