In his new podcast, Lava Records CEO Jason Flom foregrounds exonerees’ disturbing stories of criminal injustice. He personally knows how motivating those tales can be.
By Dan McCarthy
Jason Flom, who previously broadcast the singular voices of Katy Perry and Kid Rock, is now spreading those of exonerees. (Photo: Lava Records)
One day in the early 1990s, Jason Flom was reading the New York Post. On its own, hardly a notable factoid — but for the music executive and now-CEO of Lava Records, a habitual reader of the New York Times, that his usual paper was sold out was serendipitous: The issue contained a story about how Andrew Cuomo, then the governor of New York, had denied parole to Steven Lennon, a man who, in 1992, was serving time in a maximum security prison on a cocaine possession charge.
Flom, who still has the article, was the same age as Lennon while he was in prison; and as a rising A&R (artists and repertoire) executive for Atlantic Records, he had been around drug culture for years. He was moved by the details of Lennon’s sentence, and reached out to an attorney he knew who had experience with drug offenses. The attorney took the case — and discovered a technicality that freed Lennon.
Flom, who had gained Lennon’s mother’s trust by introducing her to the lawyer, was holding Shirley Lennon’s hand in the courtroom on the day her son was acquitted. “When that gavel came down,” Flom recalled, “I was consumed. Hooked.”
Thus began Flom’s longtime side hustle as an advocate for criminal justice reform, which has seen him devoting his music-industry reach and resources to fighting false confessions, prosecutorial misconduct, eyewitness misidentification, and jailhouse snitches. This month has seen the launch of his new true-crime podcast series, Wrongful Conviction With Jason Flom. The podcast selects cross-sections of people from different, races, socio-economic backgrounds, and geographic location in the United States to tell stories that “educate people on how broken the system is, and how bad it can backfire,” Flom says.*
One dollar from every podcast download through December will be donated to future work exonerating the innocent — and the podcast has already reached top-10 position on international iTunes podcast charts, and ranked at #14 on the iTunes podcast charts list within 24 hours of its debut, according to production company reVolver, which produces Wrongful Conviction. Now that the podcast is out, Flom is employing his music-industry resources and name brand to making sure the project, and the powerful stories behind it, get out to the masses.
On a Tuesday night in early November, exonerees mingled with guests over cocktails and gratis sushi at the Park Avenue Gansevoort Hotel in New York City’s NoMad District. Flom maneuvered from posing for photo opportunities in the entrance hall to bobbing and weaving his way through the crowd in the function room, where exonerees from the podcast’s 10-episode first season mixed with friends and associates from the music industry and a litany of philanthropists and supporters.
All were there to celebrate the podcast, as well as to raise money for the Innocence Project, where Flom serves on the board. Flom’s late father was a partner at one of the country’s largest law firms; he himself is a multi-millionaire after years spent discovering and nurturing the music careers of the likes of Kid Rock, Matchbox 20, Coldplay, and Lenny Kravitz. Yet, over the course of night, he proved to be a capable non-profit fundraiser, highlighting the powerful stories of exonerees and sharing them with others, much as he does on his podcast.
“There’s no better witness to the significance of the [criminal justice] reform movement than the exonerees themselves,” Innocence Project co-founder and former O.J. Simpson defense lawyer, Barry Sheck, said at the launch party. “They are the best persuaders, witnesses, the real heart and soul of our movement. The more exposure they get, the better for everyone.”
“There’s no better witness to the significance of the [criminal justice] reform movement than the exonerees themselves.”
The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 as a national litigation and public policy organization committed to freeing the unjustly incarcerated under the banner of systemic justice reform. Flom and Innocence Project executive director, Maddy deLone, agree that mandatory sentencing laws are a blight on America’s criminal justice system. Enforcing minimum numbers of years in prison imperils those who are wrongfully convicted, deLone argues — which applies to about one in 25 prisoners in America, by one 2014 study’s estimate. “These men and women who are accused did not actually commit those crimes, and people who are crammed through the system and don’t get the fairness they need,” deLone said. “It puts too much on the overall criminal justice system, and all of that is part of what you hear in these stories.”
Flom’s podcast is primarily premised not on figures, but on personal stories. The podcast features intimate conversations between Flom and his subjects, which range from legal experts providing context and interpretation of cases to exonerees themselves. At the event, the power of their personal testimony came into play when Flom brought his Wrongful Conviction subjectson stage.
“The state pen won’t do it, they’re the ones fighting to keep us in,” Keith Allan Harward, who narrowly escaped the death penalty for a wrongful murder conviction, and was freed last April after spending 34 years in a six-by-nine-foot prison cell, told the event’s guests. “You can claim our lives as what your money has done.”
Flom appears onstage at his podcast’s launch party with Raymond Santana, a member of the Central Park Five. (Photo: Nomi Ellenson)
The night featured a fundraising “text-a-thon,” wherein partygoers texted donations with personalized messages, which were broadcast on a monitor from the side of the stage. Several “fuck motherfucking Trump” sentiments appeared onscreen, likely inspired by the fact that Raymond Santana — one of the exonerees from the Central Park Five case — was in attendance. While introducing Santana, Flom reminded the crowd of current GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s public history about that case (Trump has publicly stated that he believes the group, which was exonerated by DNA evidence, is guilty).
Douglas DiLosa, another Wrongful Conviction episode subject and an exoneree freed with help from the Innocence Project, spent 14 years at the Angola Prison in Louisiana (known as “The Alcatraz of the South”) after being charged with murdering his wife. He was found brutally beaten, with his feet and hands bound behind his back, where there was also a boot-print bruise, the night of the murder. “I’ll never figure that one out,” Flom joked when introducing DiLosa to the stage.
In person, DiLosa resembles a community college professor: He was festooned in a sensible button-down and blazer, and was quick to break into a wry grin, or a heartbreaking observation from his own story. “I knew from day one the police were corrupt. By their own admission to me, at least, to my face. I asked the police the day I was arrested, “Why are you doing this to me and my children?” he said with a native’s Bayou drawl. What followed would be utterly shocking if the theme of the night (and revelations about police misconduct that news organizations and social media have highlighted in recent years) wasn’t so somber.
“The guy, close as we are now, almost spit in my face when he said to me: ‘Fuck you, fuck your children, fuck that dead bitch of a wife of yours, I didn’t ask her to get killed in my city, and I didn’t ask you to demandsomeone get arrested. You want someone arrested, you’re it. I don’t know who’s guilty but I can build a case against you.’ That’s almost verbatim. And then I was arrested,” DiLosa said.
He added that he was a semi-affluent, well-educated white male. “I didn’t stand a chance against a corrupt system,” he said. “What chance do minorities have that don’t have the resources that even I did?”
DiLosa’s story, and Wrongful Conviction stories of exonerees like Barry Gibbs, who spent 19 years in a New York prison framed for murder by one of the the New York Police Department’s “mafia cops,” are salient examples of the corruption that victims of the system do indeed encounter. As a Washington University Law Review report on police misconduct stated in 2013, “While the leading identified cause of wrongful convictions in past studies of exonerations is witness misidentification, a very different dynamic is at work in the police misconduct cases.” That’s an understatement in the case of Gibbs: At his trial, one eyewitness that had testified against Gibbs later recanted his testimony, saying that one of the corrupt officers had threatened his family if he didn’t identify Gibbs in the line-up, and again in court.
These stories, Flom says, form “a microcosm of a broken system.”
These stories, Flom says, form “a microcosm of a broken system.” That system, he says, “is not designed as well as it should be to get justice. It’s designed to get convictions.” A part of the problem, Flom adds, is the sheer workload public defenders shoulder. In 2013,Mother Jones found that, on average, a year and a half of time would be required to actually handle a year’s worth of public-defense work. Flom’s perspective, gleaned from the stories he’s heard and the cases he’s worked on, echoes the sentiment. “Everything is tilted to side with the prosecutors,” he says.
Flom says that he has broken down a few times in the recording studio as he has relived these stories with his subjects. “It’s my life’s work, and I feel very lucky that it is,” he says. “But I wish it wasn’t. At the Innocence Project we say that we’d love to be put out of business, nothing will make us happier.” As he’s quick to state, when the justice system convicts the wrong person, it stops looking for the right person. In the cases when the Innocence Project has exonerated an innocent person, it’s also helped identify the guilty person, but identification doesn’t always lead to incarceration. In several cases, those guilty parties have gone on to commit more heinous crimes, as in the case of the Central Park Five.
At the end of the night, Flom’s Gansevoort party had raised over $200,000 for the organization. Not bad for a man perhaps best known for signing starlets like Katy Perry and Lorde — Billboardhas called him “the hair metal whisperer turned pop-star finder,” after over three decades in the music business.
His podcast doesn’t just stand as a testament to Flom’s devotion to putting an end to wrongful convictions—it demonstrates the power of singular stories to energize people into taking action against cracks in the system. Twenty-five years after Flom read and was inspired to act by that New York Post story, he feels he’s helped make a dent in criminal justice reform. “Could I have foreseen that I would be able to have the impact that I’ve been able to have?” he asks. “No, I couldn’t; but I’m happy it worked out that way.”
*Update — October 19, 2016: This post has been updated to clarify details of the podcast series’ production.