This music mogul who helped launch Katy Perry's career works to free wrongfully convicted felons

Jason Flom is a founding board member of The Innocence Project and has a podcast

July 5, 2017, 6:18 PM

— -- Music mogul Jason Flom has jam sessions with Wyclef Jean, hangs out with Jay-Z and is responsible for launching the careers of Katy Perry and other hitmakers. But he has another existence away from the glamour of Hollywood, working to free people convicted of crimes they did not commit.

"I’m fascinated by their stories and I’m fascinated by their courage and their strength and their spirit and their lack of bitterness, which always blows me away," Flom said.

Flom, who is the CEO of Lava Records, is a founding board member of The Innocence Project, a non-profit organization that uses DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. To date, the group has helped free almost 200 people.

"We have two separate systems of justice in this country: One if you have money and one if you don't, and that is a fundamental inequity that has to be addressed," Flom said.

Many Innocence Project clients have been guests on Flom’s passion project: A podcast called "Wrongful Conviction."

"The main goal for me of the podcast is to open the minds of the audience, every one of whom is a potential juror," Flom said.

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One of his most recent guests was Antoine Day, who was convicted of a killing that happened in Chicago while he was in New Orleans.

Day was sentenced to concurrent prison terms of 60 years for murder and 25 years for attempted murder. He served 10 years before getting a new trial, during which the charges were dropped.

"I appreciate you having this platform," Day told Flom while he recorded his podcast. "You don't probably understand how important it is, but for a guy like myself to be able to let this out, this is so important."

Flom will even conduct interviews from inside prisons. He went to Sing Sing Correctional Facility, the notoriously dangerous maximum security prison in Ossining, New York, to interview convicted murderer Jon Adrian "JJ" Velazquez, who is an Innocence Project client.

Velazquez is serving 25 years to life for the murder of a retired cop, but Flom believes Velazquez when he says he’s innocent."Tragically he was picked out of a book," Flom said. "He had some minor brush with the law when he was a kid and they built a case against him, which when you look at the facts makes absolutely no sense. None of it adds up."

Flom’s podcast is now in its third season. His interest in criminal justice crusading started in the ‘90s when he read a newspaper article about a young man sentenced to life in prison for a non-violent, first offense drug crime.

"He wasn't innocent," he said. "But I just thought that the sentence was so wildly disproportionate to what he had done."

So Flom said he called an attorney friend who agreed to take on the case pro-bono. With the attorney's help, the man was eventually released from prison.

"It was the best feeling in the world," he said. "And then the lights went off in my brain, and I said, 'This is my purpose in life.'"

He then set his sights on fixing multiple injustices he saw in the criminal justice system.

"There's a half a million people in jail in America and we don't even know if they did anything," he said. "They haven't been convicted of anything, but they can't post bail...typically these bails can be anywhere from $500 to $1,500 and, of course, Kalief Browder really brought it to light."

Browder was arrested at age 16 after being accused of stealing a backpack. He spent more than three years at the New York City jail Rikers Island, including nearly 800 days in solitary confinement. He was never tried, but was held because he couldn’t make the $3,000 bail.

He turned down a plea bargain that would have granted his release in exchange for pleading guilty on principle.

"The judge told me that if I plead guilty I'd be released from jail that same day," Browder told "Nightline" in an October 2014 interview. "But I didn't do it. You're not going to make me say I did something just so I could go home."

Browder was never convicted. Two years after he was released, Browder hung himself with an air conditional cord in his home in the Bronx. He was 22.

"Some of the most violent, dangerous institutions in the country are actually jails like Rikers Island," Flom said. "So what winds up happening is that people will plead guilty to things they didn't do. It goes back to that, right, just to get out of jail because they can’t be there."

Because of stories like Browder’s, Flom helped create the Bronx Freedom Fund, a charitable bail fund for New Yorkers charged with low-level offenses.

"Ninty-seven percent of our clients have shown up for every court date, which totally destroys the myth that they would like us to believe, which is that we need cash bail in order to compel people to show up for their court dates. No, we don't," Flom said. "Nobody skipped bail."

Flom comes from a family involved with the justice system. His father Joseph Flom was a prominent mergers and acquisitions attorney, who Jason Flom says some people have called "the greatest lawyer of the 20th century."

"He was a great inspiration to me," Jason Flom said. "He said, 'Do whatever you want to do. Try to be the best at it, but just make the world a better place.'"

He said he wanted to be a rock star, but his mother told him he needed to get a real job. So he started at the bottom of the music industry ladder with hanging up posters in record stores.

"Then I determined I needed to find a band," he said. "[I thought] ‘Well, how was I going to find a band?’ I had a staple gun and double-sided tape. Not the tools of the trade, right?"

He didn’t have an office, just a phone and desk, but Flom said he soon got his big break.

"I was able to find a band and convince my boss to sign them," he said. "We put the record out. And it exploded."

Flom went on to sign a number of now well-established rock bands at Atlantic Records and then later Virgin Records, including Twisted Sister, Skid Row, Stone Temple Pilots, Collective Soul and Kid Rock.

"Once in a while you get that tingly feeling, right?" Flom said. "You have to act on that instinct."

That instinct also kicked in when he heard the song "Royals" by a then unknown New Zealand teenager named Lorde. Before that, he almost missed out on Katy Perry. She was struggling to catch her big break when Flom agreed to have a meeting with her.

“She walked in, and immediately I thought, ‘This girl's a star,” Flom said. “I hadn’t heard a note of music yet but just the way she carried herself, right and her story… I was smitten.”

But then Flom said he played one of Perry’s songs for his senior staff, "and most of them were like, 'This is horrible,'" he said.

"I was like, ’Maybe I’m wrong,’" he continued. "And I was listening to Katy on my headphones and I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm an idiot. I think I totally screwed this up. She's brilliant.'"

Flom said he’ll keep lifting up the next great voice, whether it’s a rock star or a prisoner.

"I feel a very heavy sense of responsibility to do as much as I can for as long as I can," he said. "And that's exactly what I'm going to do."

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