On a recent Sunday morning, music executive Jason Flom was cruising up the west side of Manhattan in his gray Bentley, going 57 in a 50, and enlivening the familiar drive to Sing Sing prison with the story of a letter he got some years back. “I opened it, and it said, ‘Dear Jason, you don’t know me, but you got me pregnant.’” He pauses, hands at 10 and two, blue eyes widening in a face that has been likened to a Marx brothers’ mug. “Not a good opening statement, so to speak.”
The letter came from the sister of a man named Steven Lennon, who had been serving 15 years to life for possession of 4.2 ounces of cocaine. “Which was 0.2 over the cliff — that made it an A-1 felony, the same as murder,” explains Flom, who happened upon Lennon’s story in the Daily News in 1993. He was hailing a cab, on his way to play tennis. “Of course, the article caught my attention because it had prison and drugs,” he says. “Once I started reading it, I was like, ‘This is insane.’ It was a nonviolent first offense. My whole notion of fairness was just thrown completely out of whack.”
In fact, Flom realized that in another world — one in which he didn’t grow up privileged and white in New York — Lennon’s plight could easily have been his own. At age 26, he had gone not to prison but to rehab for cocaine. When he stumbled on Lennon’s story, he was 32 — the same age as Lennon — he was clean, and he was “making my way up the noncorporate ladder, I guess you could say,” at Atlantic Records, where he’d gone from working in the mailroom to signing bands like Skid Row and Stone Temple Pilots. Not coincidentally, Flom knew a few good lawyers. “There was this guy, Bob Kallina, we would call if one of the singers or anybody in the band got arrested,” he grins. Flom hit him up, then put him in touch with Lennon’s mom, Shirley. A few months later, Kallina called to say that he had found a small loophole in the case. They got another hearing. Flom flew upstate and was waiting in the courtroom with Lennon’s parents when the decision that he would be released was announced. “Once the judge banged the gavel down, and I saw what was possible, it was like, ‘Holy shit, this is crazy,’” Flom says. “It was the most unbelievable feeling.”
Six months later, he got the letter from Lennon’s sister, who had been so stressed by her brother’s incarceration that she hadn’t been able to conceive. “At least that’s what the doctor told her,” he recalls. “She said, ‘Right now, I’m pregnant. Thought you’d like to know.’ ” Flom, now 58, slows down as the navigation system announces, “Police reported ahead.” He smiles. “Now I’m addicted to this.”
Addicted may be an understatement. Over the past 25 years, Flom has become so involved in criminal-justice reform that he’s lost count of exactly how many people he’s helped get out of prison. Improbably, his work in that field has almost overshadowed one of the most insane A&R careers in modern musical history — a career he kick-started by cold-calling radio stations around the country, asking which band they were getting the most requests for (incidentally, a band called Zebra), and then sticking that tape under the nose of higher-ups. “The president of Atlantic was listening to the cassette on his drive home to Long Island, decides he doesn’t like it, pops it out of the tape deck, and it’s playing on the fucking radio,” Flom says with a laugh.
Two years after helping to secure Lennon’s release, he founded the Atlantic label Lava Records (“Why ‘Lava’? Because it’s hot, right?”) before going on to become chairman and CEO of Atlantic in 2004; chairman and CEO of Virgin Records in 2005; chairman and CEO of Capital Music Group in 2007; and then, in 2008, founder and CEO of a relaunched Lava Records under the Republic/Universal Music Group umbrella. (“Republic is typically the number-one label in the business,” Flom says with a shrug. “I figured I’d rather work with them than compete with them.”) In addition to Stone Temple Pilots and Skid Row, he has discovered and developed artists like Kid Rock, Matchbox Twenty, Jewel, Tori Amos, the Corrs, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and Sugar Ray.
And Flom has a knack for breaking acts that others have left for dead. “When I met Katy Perry, she was about to be dropped by her second label,” he says one afternoon when I visit his office, which is packed with pictures of him posing with celebrities, dignitaries, and former convicts. “Kid Rock, same thing. He’d had three albums, and they all flopped. Hayley Williams? Nobody knew who she was. Lorde, when I first heard her, she had 200 SoundCloud plays. But sometimes you just feel it — like, I get all tingly when I hear something special. And other times, marketing has been one of the secrets to my success because I’m too stubborn to admit I was wrong.”
It’s that same stubbornness that’s paid off when it comes to taking on the criminal-justice system. Soon after helping free Lennon, Flom read a story in Rolling Stone about DEA sting operations at Grateful Dead shows. “They were posing as Deadheads in order to basically entrap these hippie kids, and I was like, ‘OK, this is really not what our tax dollars are meant to be doing.’ ” The article referenced a group called Families Against Mandatory Minimums, so Flom called it up and joined the board. Then he saw something on TV about the Innocence Project, so he joined its board as well, becoming its first member (he’s now also on the boards of the Legal Action Center, Proclaim Justice, Drug Policy Alliance, Injustice Watch, and VetPaw). “I don’t even remember if I called first,” he tells me. “I might have just shown up. Back then it was such a tiny operation: two guys in a room with a brief case, a phone, and a dream. And maybe a microscope. I said to them, ‘I’ll do anything you want me to do.’ ”
What he’s turned out to be particularly good at doing is getting governors and presidents to grant clemencies, using his connections, his doggedness, and his significant powers of persuasion to simply bypass a broken system and go straight to the top. “It can really help sometimes,” says Jeff Kempler, the COO of Lava and a committed member of what he calls the “Flom-iverse.” “Like taking a governor or a senator backstage to a Greta Van Fleet show is useful for, ‘Hey, let me also, while you’re here, talk to you about this legislation around bail reform.’ ”
His most stunning achievement in that realm was finagling an invitation to a dinner with Bill Clinton in 2000. Flom secretly moved place cards around so that he’d be close enough to the president to have a discussion with him: “You know, you got to do what you got to do.” Once seated, he gave Clinton a letter from one of the five people he had granted clemency to a few weeks prior. “I said, ‘So, Mr. President, what you did for these five people is wonderful,’ maybe I even said ‘heroic’ — whatever, I was caught up in the moment. I had never met the leader of the free world before! I said, ‘But I know of hundreds of other cases just as bad as those.’ And he says, ‘You get them to me and I’ll sign them.’”
Clinton — whose own brother had spent a year in jail for a drug charge before the era of mandatory minimums — set certain parameters: He would only consider nonviolent first offenders who were already fairly far into long sentences. Flom started digging up cases and eventually presented Clinton with 25 clemency requests. The president granted 17 of them. “I remember adding it up, and between those 17 people, they had several hundred years left,” says Flom. He’s also sponsored four attorneys to work processing clemency applications for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, meaning that he had a hand in at least some of the 1,715 clemencies Obama granted by the end of his second term. “And there are a bunch [of prisoners] who I’ve been able to convince various governors to send home, probably 10 or 12,” he says, trying to count them off by name. “I think there’s five that I’ve been able to convince others not to execute.”
That number may soon go up to six. In 2016, Flom launched a podcast called Wrongful Conviction With Jason Flom, in which he interviews men and women who have been convicted of crimes they seem very credibly to not have committed. (The show is now in its ninth season, has 11 million downloads, and has reached number seven on Apple’s podcasts chart.) Most of the people who go on the podcast are already exonerees, or have taken Alford pleas (which prosecutors offer, it appears, when the judicial system knows it fucked up but doesn’t want to officially admit to it).
Occasionally, though, he interviews someone who is still in prison, as he did with Rodney Reed, a Texas man — and Innocence Project client — who has been on death row for more than 22 years for the abduction, rape, and murder of a cop’s fiancee, and was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on November 20th. On November 13th, Flom hosted him on the podcast, detailing how the evidence used to convict him actually demonstrates his innocence, and helping to foment a media outcry that included Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, Dr. Phil, Beyoncé, and Ted Cruz, and that led close to 3 million people to sign a petition for Reed’s release. On the 15th, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously to stay his execution.
“The Rodney Reed case had this amazing almost-explosion, like a hit,” says Kempler. “It’s like getting a hit record. People get exposed to it, it awakens something in them, and they turn that into action. [Flom’s] very good at getting people to go do something.”
In that sense, the same skill set that made him an A&R phenomenon is what makes him an effective advocate. “I love talking,” Flom says of the podcast. “I’m very good at talking, bad at shutting up. So it seemed like a natural thing.” His number-one objective, he says, is to create better jurors — people who know that a confession may have been made under duress or even violence, who don’t trust the junk science of shoe-print or bite-mark analysis, and who won’t be swayed by confirmation bias. His goal, in other words, is to head off wrongful convictions at the pass.
It’s the weekend before Thanksgiving at Sing Sing, and the visitor intake area is flooded with families bundled in coats, soggy from the driving rain outside. Babies cry. Bags of candy and dry goods clutter the ground. A sign warns that children should not be placed on the counter. Flom — who has, naturally, become friends with the warden — is guided into a primo parking spot near the entrance, hustled to the front of the line, VIP-style (“I always feel bad about that”), but still made to tread through the paperwork and the metal detector like everyone else.
For many exonerees and current prisoners, Flom — the son of the Flom who lent his name to the famous law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, and Flom — is something more than family; he’s a lifeline to a normal existence. When someone he knows gets out of prison, he’ll often set up job interviews, vouch for their character, and figure out what they need — materially or otherwise — to help them adjust to life on the outside. “I have seen that for quite a number of exonerees, a little bit of support can go a very long way,” he says, “because they are so motivated to become successful,” to make up for lost time.
Flom also, crucially, takes their calls, listens to them, doesn’t treat them like a walking tragedy or a person with something to hide. At a dinner party for a number of exonerees a friend of his hosted a few days before our trip to Sing Sing, he’d given off the vibe of a cool cousin rather than a patron saint or paterfamilias.
Later that night, the art-filled apartment he shares with his English bulldog (and “glowing orb of unconditional love”) Lulu had provided a crash pad for Michelle Murphy, exonerated after 20 years in prison for the gruesome murder of her infant son, an act that even the judge had admitted everyone knew she didn’t do. When Murphy, then 17, went to jail mere hours after finding her son’s body, she was offered no mental-health services; when she got released, at age 37, her daughter had been adopted and raised by another family, and she’d never met her granddaughter. Murphy didn’t even know how to use a cellphone. “[My friend] handed one to me and it was ringing, and I was like, ‘What do I do?’ ” Murphy says. “He took it and swiped it and handed it to me, and I’m talking to it upside down.”
The ex-con that Flom is closest to is probably Noura Jackson, an only child wrongfully accused of killing her single mother, at age 18. Shortly after she got offered an Alford plea, at age 29, Flom had her on the podcast, then decided to unofficially adopt her. “I felt like the universe was tapping me on the shoulder and going, ‘Hey, schmuck, are you going to take care of this child? Because no one else is doing it.’ ” Flom first checked with his two grown children. “How would you feel about having a sister?” he asked. Then, with their blessing, he helped Jackson move to New York, got her enrolled in college (“I congratulate her when she gets good grades, which she does”), and took on the slightly hovering role of a dad, needling her about when she’s going to get a boyfriend and why she’s not wearing a heavier coat. All of this seems perfectly reasonable to Flom, who carefully vets which convictions he’ll publicize as wrongful. “I have a family of exonerees,” he says. “Michelle Murphy is like a niece to me. Amanda Knox is like my little sister. J.J. is like a brother.”
J.J., or Jon-Adrian Velazquez — the subject of the Dateline documentary Conviction, which outlines how he was wrongfully convicted of murdering a former cop in 1998 — is the person we’re at Sing Sing to visit today. He’s been incarcerated 22 years and is up for parole in three, but Flom knows all too well how being innocent can actually work against you. “You go in front of the parole board, and you have to express your remorse and say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry for the crime I didn’t commit.’ Rarely do they grant parole for someone who doesn’t acknowledge their remorse and their responsibility,” says Flom, who has been in touch with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo personally about trying to get clemency for Velazquez.
In a closet of a room off the main visiting area, he and Flom embrace deeply before Velazquez introduces Flom to Bruce Bryant, charged at 23 with a drug-related homicide and then convicted when a famously crooked prosecutor (who ended up going to jail himself after he became a defense lawyer) apparently gave someone a secret deal to testify against him. Today just so happens to be Bryant’s 50th birthday, and he’s still mired in a seemingly endless string of appeals. Flom listens to his story (he knows all about the crooked prosecutor already), then suggests that Bryant come on the podcast. Finally, he asks the question he asks every innocent person he meets in prison: “After all this time, are you bitter?”
“No,” Bryant tells him. “I’m not bitter at the world.”
“But there’s a clot in the American justice system,” Velazquez adds. “There are no answers. It’s just the way the system is.”
“Of all the people you’ve met in prison, what percentage do you think are innocent?” asks Flom.
“I’d say about seven or eight percent,” replies Bryant. He nods toward his friend, who he met in part because they both spent so much time in the law library, trying to figure out how to prove their innocence and set themselves free. “You meet some of the best people in some of the worst places sometimes,” Bryant says.
Flom concurs. Back outside the prison walls, he looks to the Hudson River, gray and foreboding beneath the pounding rain. Then he slides his narrow, black-clad frame behind the wheel of his car and throws it in reverse. He’s running late to a lunch with a billionaire who Flom thinks might put some real money behind all these ventures. But honestly, the prisoners themselves come first.
“They all have that crazy lack of bitterness you just saw,” he says of the wrongfully convicted people who he knows. “They all have that will to live. If you go through an ordeal like that, you can either let it take over your life and destroy you — and I’m sure a lot of people do, because who could stand the fucking deprivation and everything else they go through — or you find this fucking inner something that these people have, which is what’s so intoxicating about being around them. They’ve figured out the meaning of life.”
The rain pitter-pats on the windshield, and the highway curves gently before us. “I mean,” Flom says. “There’s nothing I would rather be doing with my time.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated a prosecutor went to jail for prosecutorial conduct. His conviction was for illegal conduct when he later became a defense attorney.