Jason Flom is the CEO of Lava Records and former Chairman of Atlantic Records where he first jumped into the music industry in 1979. He has since worked with and signed artists such as Katy Perry, Lorde, Jessie J, and Kid Rock. But it’s the good fight that Flom has been quietly fighting over the past nearly thirty years that has made him an unsuspecting hero in the fight against wrongful incarceration in the United States.
In partnership with the legal community, Flom has been instrumental in getting countless innocent people out of prison. Perhaps the most recent high profile case was that of Rodney Reed. Flom worked with Kim Kardashian to raise awareness of the case in light of exonerating evidence. A nail-biting saga, there were only days remaining when the state of Texas decided to halt his execution. We spoke with Flom by phone about the U.S. justice system, his podcast, “Wrongful Conviction,” and how we can all educate ourselves to become better jurors and ultimately better citizens.
Mark Benajamin: How did you become initially interested in the first case you were involved in, the case of Steven Lennon?
Jason Flom: This story caught my attention because like a lot of people, I’m fascinated by drugs and prison. I had read an article in the paper and it threw my entire sense of fairness and equity out the window. In a nutshell, Steven was a first time nonviolent drug offender. His crime was possession of cocaine, not a small amount of cocaine…something like 4.2 ounces. So, several thousand dollars worth, but he wasn’t caught selling, he was caught possessing it. There was no violence, no history of drugs, nothing. No guns, no weapons.
He had been sentenced to 15 years to life prison. He had been in for eight years already. He happened to be the same age as I was at the time. He was thirty-two. I had substance abuse issues myself as a kid. This is the type of thing that was as they say, ‘the wrong place at the wrong time.’ I kept reading the article and rereading it and not understanding because I’m thinking, ‘how can you go to prison for fifteen years mandatory for a nonviolent first offense?’ I thought I had to do something about it if I could. I was so naive that I thought I could.
So the mother, Shirley, was in the article and so I looked her up in the phonebook. I offered to help. I told her, ‘I would like to send some money. I don’t have a lot of money, but I’ll send you what I have. Maybe you can get a new lawyer.’ She said, ‘well, we’ve exhausted all of our appeals. Our last hope was clemency from the governor.’ So, I called the only criminal defense attorney I knew, a guy named Bob Kallina.
He represented two of the artists that I had signed: Stone Temple Pilots and Skid Row. Since they were getting arrested frequently, I had Bob on speed dial. I asked Bob to take a look at the case. Even though he said it was hopeless, he agreed to take it pro bono as a favor to me. Long story short, six months later, we ended up in a courtroom in New York where Steven was led in shackles, as if he was a serial killer, and I sat there holding Shirley’s hand. Her husband Stan was there with us.
We were the only people in the courtroom. The judge who presided struck me just from appearances. He was an old conservative man…giant white hair, the whole thing. The arguments went back and forth and the judge banged the gavel down and said, ‘the motion is granted.’
He sent Steven home. And I just thought, ‘wow, that’s the most amazing feeling I’ve ever had.’ That’s how it all got started.
MB: Have you seen this series “Defending Jacob” on Apple TV? It’s with Jaeden Martell who we featured in our latest issue. I like the series because it opens a lot of people’s eyes that maybe don’t know or haven’t been exposed to the American justice system. It’s not this blind lady with the scales of justice. It’s more of a battle of winning and losing.
We live in a country where 1% of the population is incarcerated at any given time. That rate is five to ten times higher than other countries. How do you feel about the justice system as it currently stands?
JF: Yeah, that show was great. I don’t even have strong enough words to say how I feel about it. It’s in need of a total overhaul. I’ve been able to work with a lot of different organizations. They call it a disastrous failed social policy experiment. Everyone knows now, thanks to Michelle Alexander, and other brilliant thought leaders in the space, that this is a just a continuation of slavery. It’s driven by an economic engine…
MB: Like these publicly traded prison system companies?
JF: It’s an $8 billion industry, right? Funded by taxpayers and funneling money into pockets of big corporations and wealthy people. I often ask people to check their portfolios and make sure that they don’t have funds that own stock in corporations that profit off of human caging. There are a lot of them and they need to be held accountable now.
Many different aspects of the system are designed to hurt people. They’re not designed to rehabilitate, they’re not designed for public safety. They’re not designed for any sort of benefit to society. It’s designed for cruelty and profit, and that’s it. That’s why when people say the system is broken, it’s not broken. It’s functioning the way it was designed. We have to recognize that in order to properly address the problem, right?
There’s a very little known fact that, as woke as your readers are, I would bet that most of them don’t know that slavery is not illegal in America. It’s only illegal in one state, Colorado. It passed a referendum last year outlawing slavery. Everyone thinks it was outlawed in 1865 but what happened was, as a concession to southerners when they abolished slavery, they said it was only illegal for free people. So, of course what happened then is that all over the South, they went around arresting any black person they could find for loitering, or not carrying identifications, or even not having a job was a crime.
“The interactions I’ve had with these people who have normal lives until everything turns upside down, through no fault of their own, have been some of the most profound interactions I’ve ever had. The courage and the spirit and the resilience of these people puts gratitude in my attitude every day.”Jason Flom
They created all of these excuses to lock people up so they could take advantage of the slave labor. Particularly in Texas where sugar cane was all picked by incarcerated black people. The mortality rate, I think, was 4% a year. There was convict leasing…it’s a really gruesome history and it goes on to this day and there are many major corporations, some of whom we would consider to be progressive companies who take advantage of slave labor. People can be paid 4 cents an hour or $2 a day or a dollar an hour. Most places it’s more than that, something like 19 cents an hour. It’s all insane.
So by establishing my podcast, “Wrongful Conviction,” which has now grown to levels I never expected, it’s an attempt to educate the public. If they end up on juries, they’ll be more likely to understand what’s really happening in this theater of the mind that is the courtroom.
JF: This year there’s a chance in Oregon that a new law will be passed that will not have people arrested for any sort of drug possession.
MB: Considering this country just got over its worst drug addiction ever where millions died and millions more had their lives ruined with opioids which were legally prescribed…it makes you wonder who these laws are protecting?
JF: It’s also important to recognize that drugs are both the pretext and the excuse for police. Why did they go into Breonna Taylor’s house? Because they were ‘looking for drugs,’ right? There weren’t any. Then what did they say after George Floyd’s murder? They say, ‘Oh, he had drugs in his system.’
Drugs are always the thing that the law enforcement falls back on. It’s like the boogeyman to justify that horrid behavior towards citizens. Drugs are and always have been and always will be a part of society. I don’t do drugs. My kids don’t do drugs, but I did when I was a kid. I believe that part of the reason I did them was because they were illegal and because it was a risky behavior.
Cavemen smoked pot and children run around in circles until they’re dizzy. People like that feeling and they’re going to find a way to get them. That’s never going to change. When you start to look at the drug war, it has actually done so much more damage than drugs themselves. When you look at destabalizing of governments to narco terrorism, locking up generations of people, destroying families, trillions of dollars spent. It’s madness. In countries like Portugal where they decriminalized drugs, usage went down because it’s no longer cool.
The legal justice system
MB: Justice system reform has become a hot topic in the national political debate especially with recent events. How do you see your podcast, “Wrongful Conviction,” playing a part?
JF: Let me just say this. I have been very privileged to spend time with some of the most extraordinary people on the planet. Many of the people I would put into the highest category of the most amazing, courageous, and interesting people I’ve met are the exonerees themselves. I’ve hung out with the biggest rock stars and most prominent political leaders and all kinds of people. But the interactions I’ve had with these people who have normal lives until everything turns upside down, through no fault of their own, have been some of the most profound interactions I’ve ever had. The courage and the spirit and the resilience of these people puts gratitude in my attitude every day.
We all have so much to learn from them. I love telling stories and I love interviewing people and I love talking, as you can tell. The idea that I could create a podcast where I could tell these individual human stories which change perceptions was a no brainer. The good news is that because of my long history in this movement and with helping and working with people who are innocent both inside and outside prison, affords me a level of trust that few others have. I’m able to have them come in and share their stories in a way that really touches people. For me, that was number one.
“I am firmly opposed to the death penalty in all cases. I think for anyone who’s not opposed, I would ask them to ask themselves the question, ‘what percentage of innocent people is it okay to execute?’”
Number two is in the telling of these stories. Everyone knows that human beings respond more to individual stories than statistics. I thought if we can get these stories out there to people in large numbers, then we will, in my definition, be improving the system because everyone who listens to the podcast and everyone who’s reading this article is someday going to get a jury summons. And when they do, they’re going to be confronted with all kinds of cases. Some of them will be holding somebody’s life in their hands. Some will be shown a bunch of bullshit, and they will hopefully recognize some of the tricks and some of the problems and pitfalls and everything else that goes into wrongful conviction.
The people that listen to my podcast will understand how to identify a false confession and how to better understand if someone might be lying about what they claim to be a scientific fact. We’re getting ready to launch a new podcast called, “Wrongful Conviction: Junk Science.” We address this. They’ll be able to recognize when a defense attorney is underprepared and overworked or incompetent or drunk. They’ll be able to understand that 80% of the judges in our country are former prosecutors.
MB: It’s a revolving door.
JF: They’re not there to uphold the bedrock principle of innocent until proven guilty. Too often, it goes by the wayside. The fact that in America they’re allowed to lie when they interrogate you. That’s how a lot of false confessions happen. They lie to you. They can bribe you with some offer of leniency.
That’s why I started the podcast. I’m very thrilled that it has reached over 15 million listeners and I’ve seen feedback from people. I know that we’ve had influence in a couple of cases.
Partnering with Kim Kardashian for good
MB: One of the interesting aspects of you being in the position of a music executive exposed to entertainment and celebrity is that you’re able to bring certain voices in to amplify your message like Kim Kardashian. I wonder, did you inspire her to get a law degree?
JF: Kim has been a fabulous force for change. She is deeply committed. We’re working on a cannabis felony case together now; the case of Julius Jones in Oklahoma. She is tireless, passionate, super informed, and she’s smart. She’s been on my podcast twice and I’ll never forget the first time when I met her. She’s arguably the most famous woman in the world. She showed up to the studio on time, no drama, no entourage…sweet as could be and ready to go to work. It was an awesome experience all the way around. She helped bring attention to so many cases.
MB: I want to ask you about the Rodney Reed case. This man was almost murdered by the state of Texas. There’s evidence, to my understanding, that was not shown to the jury at the time of his trial that could have exonerated him or at least provided him with a mistrial. You and Kim were one of the reasons that case got so much media attention. Why is he still in jail?
JF: Kim was deeply involved in that case, too. We worked together on that case. It’s a disgusting case. It’s our system at its worst. I am firmly opposed to the death penalty in all cases. I think for anyone who’s not opposed, I would ask them to ask themselves the question, ‘what percentage of innocent people is it okay to execute?’
The death penalty needs to go. Every western nation has eradicated it a long time ago. We know that mistakes are made over and over again. Look at Florida with the James Dailey case. He’s going to be executed and he’s one hundred percent innocent. I did a podcast about it. He’s been on death row for thirty-five years. He’s a military veteran. No criminal record. He’s either going to be the hundredth person executed by the state of Florida or the 30th exonerated from death row.
“That’s why when people say the system is broken, it’s not broken. It’s functioning the way it was designed. We have to recognize that in order to properly address the problem.”
The Rodney Reed case is absolutely insane. The real killer has confessed. He was convicted of a similar crime and served ten years in prison. He was a cop. He was the only person that was with her at the time of her death. That’s been proven. The forensics have been proven. We had Dr. Michael Bodden on the podcast, arguably the most respected forensic pathologist in the country, who said that it is a medical and scientific certainty that Rodney did not kill, could not kill Stacy Stites. She was white, he was black. She was engaged to a cop. It was Texas. There you go.
I would ask anyone to listen to the podcast that we did on the case and give me another theory. I hope they also take away from it the same thing I do. It’s an almost ethereal nature of these human beings who we have locked away for crimes that they have not committed. They exude this grace that is disarming.
Striking a balance
MB: I want to ask you because you have this interesting serious side working in this space. It’s pretty scary and uncomfortable. Then you have this other side of your life which is full of joy and fun like working in pop music. How do you balance yourself mentally juggling the two?
“It is also true that when my phone rings, it’s as likely to be someone calling me from death row as it is someone calling me from Spotify.”Jason Flom
JF: I don’t know. I’m very lucky to be able to have this sort of yin and yang. They seem to blend together. They have for a long time. New music still excites me. We’ll be launching a new artist into the world, somegirlnamedanna, which is all one word, no capitals.
We’re about to launch her debut single at the end of this month. I just think she’s so wonderful. She’s a beautiful singer and writer and person. It’s going to be a very joyous experience getting her music out there into the world and she’s also someone who wants to make a difference. It does work together. I don’t know how. I also have a children’s book of course, called “Lulu is a Rhinoceros.” Do you know about that?
MB: No, I had no idea.
JF: Yeah, I wrote a children’s book a couple of years ago with my daughter, Allison. It’s about a rhinoceros trapped in a bulldog’s body. So it’s about her struggle to find love and acceptance in a world where she is judged by her physical appearance instead of what’s in her heart. It’s a contemporaneous topic. We just finished the second book and we’re working on an animated TV series which is super exciting.
And so, yeah, somehow or another, it all balances out, but it is also true that when my phone rings, it’s as likely to be someone calling me from death row as it is someone calling me from Spotify. It goes full circle.
I’m just really grateful to be able to make a difference. To put just a tiny bit more fairness into a terribly unfair system.