Jason Flom, The Music Executive With An Ear For Injustice

Oct 20, 2020
Originally published on October 20, 2020 6:45 pm

Call it professionalism, but there are some things Cheryl Pilate just can't say. She's a criminal defense attorney in Kansas City, Mo., and toes a fine line between getting attention for her clients' stories and being bound by professional ethics.

"As a lawyer, frequently I feel — and I know many others feel — constrained in the language that we use, " she says. "We're mindful of our professional responsibilities and how we need to carry those out."

So she can't come out and say, "This case is crazy — just look at what the prosecution is trying to do!" That's where Jason Flom comes in.

"Jason has an almost unerring instinct for ferreting out the most dramatic and unjust aspects of a case," Pilate says. "Truly outrageous things can happen, and he zeroes right in on them."

Flom is the founder and CEO of Lava Records, a label partnered with Universal that counts Lorde, Greta Van Fleet and Jessie J among its roster of artists. He's had a lot of big jobs in the music industry, having been chairman of Atlantic Records, Virgin Records, and Capitol Music Group. The list of artists whose careers he's helped foster is also long and varied: Tori Amos, Twisted Sister, Manowar, Katy Perry, Sugar Ray, Matchbox 20.

But lately, he's been gaining more attention for his side gig: helping support people who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes. His podcast, Wrongful Conviction with Jason Flom, is readying its 11th season. In it, Flom talks to people with direct experience with wrongful convictions — those who have been through it themselves, their family members, lawyers, loved ones. Sometimes he manages to talk to people while they're still incarcerated.

That was the case with Cheryl Pilate's client, Lamonte McIntyre, who served 23 years in prison for a double murder he did not commit. In his episode of Wrongful Conviction, Flom interviews Pilate and an FBI special agent before speaking to McIntyre himself. Flom highlights prosecutorial misconduct, a lack of evidence, some dubious romantic relationships connected to McIntyre's case.

"That's where all the worst stuff is," McIntyre says about life in prison in the episode. "Knowing that for the last 23 years, two hundred something months, 11 hundred weeks and 8 thousand days it's the same thing. It never changes." The show can be a tough listen at times, but it doesn't feel gross the way true crime entertainment often can. You don't get the sense that Flom is exploiting people for their juicy stories; instead, he's content to simply ask his guests how their day is going.

Flom got interested in criminal justice after reading a story in the New York Post about Steven Lennon, a man sentenced to 15 years in prison for cocaine possession. Flom, who had substance abuse problems as a kid, says he was acutely aware of the differences in how his situation was treated compared to Lennon's "Because I came from the neighborhood I came from, the zip code I came from, the family I came from, and because I was employed, I was sent to rehab," he says.

This was 1993, and Flom was still working his way up in the music world. Still, he had some connections and some favors he could call in. After calling Lennon's mother, he got on the phone with Bob Kalina, the late lawyer for Skid Row and Stone Temple Pilots — both bands whose careers Flom helped launch and who also seemed to be in constant trouble with the law. Kalina found a longshot loophole that eventually led to Flom, Kalina and Lennon's family sitting in a courtroom. A judge heard the arguments and ruled in Lennon's favor.

The experience sent Flom down a path of finding other criminal justice groups to work with, looking to reform the criminal justice system in an age of mass incarceration. "It doesn't help anybody or anything," he says. "It disrupts communities, and blows apart families, and leads to more incarceration."

He ultimately ended up at The Innocence Project — the long-standing organization that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people. It's a group run by idealistic lawyers and professors — not necessarily the types of people comfortable making a fundraising pitch, says co-founder Barry Sheck.

"Asking other people for money just doesn't come naturally to a lot of us," Sheck says. "Jason has no shame. Jason will come right out and he'll say, 'Look, you know this is a good thing. You should give money to this. You should help us pay for this.' And he was great at that, whether it was at a gala or just in ordinary conversation."

In talking to Flom and listening to his interviews, it's striking how quickly he'll come up with the name of another worthy individual: Whether it's an artist he's excited about or a case that's currently pressing (two death-row cases, Rodney Reed and Julius Jones, are currently on his radar), he's never not using his skills as a marketing guy to push people's stories out to the public.

Flom recently launched offshoots of Wrongful Conviction that examine how bad science and false confessions can leave people wrongly incarcerated. The wider goal of the show, he says. is to create a more thoughtful pool of jurors, who will more skeptical of the arguments made by prosecutors.

And even after wrongfully convicted people he's championed are exonerated, Flom seems committed to helping them out with the day-to-day stuff they need when they get out of prison: a job, a car, a place to stay. As Sheck puts it, "If you need a root canal, Jason will pay for it."

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TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

Before Lorde was a global pop star, she was just a kid from New Zealand, posting her music on SoundCloud, until one of her songs found its way to a guy named Jason Flom, a music executive who took her from small-town audiences to selling out stadiums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROYALS")

LORDE: (Singing) And we'll never be royals - royals.

MOSLEY: Flom has a knack for this, helping acts like Skid Row, Katy Perry and Tori Amos find fame. But these days, he's been getting more attention for his side gig - helping wrongfully convicted people get out of prison. NPR's Andrew Limbong has more.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: In 2017, Lamonte McIntyre was on his 23rd year in prison for a double murder he did not commit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMONTE MCINTYRE: It was just a Friday. I get a phone call saying the police is over at my grandmother's house looking for me.

LIMBONG: This is from the podcast "Wrongful Conviction" with Jason Flom. The show's readying its 11th season. In it, Flom talks to people who've been wrongfully convicted, their families, their lawyers. Usually it's after the incarcerated person gets out. But on this episode, McIntyre tells Flom through a crummy phone line about the monotony of life inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCINTYRE: That's where all that - the worst stuff is - knowing that for the last 23 years, 200-some months, 1,100 weeks and 8,000 days, it's the same thing. It never changes.

LIMBONG: In the podcast episode, Flom outlines the prosecutorial misconduct, the lack of evidence and the dubious romantic relationships. Then, in what counts as a happy ending in stories like this, McIntyre was released in October 2017 after a judge declared his case a, quote, "manifest injustice."

CHERYL PILATE: The nice thing about Jason is he can really give voice to the pain and the horror that's involved in some of these cases.

LIMBONG: Cheryl Pilate represented Lamonte McIntyre. She says that as a lawyer, she's limited in what she can say in cases like McIntyre's to generate public support.

PILATE: But Jason has an - almost an unerring instinct for ferreting out the most dramatic and unjust aspects of a case. Truly outrageous things can happen, and he zeroes right in on them.

JASON FLOM: I think my skills as a marketing guy helped me out in this world.

LIMBONG: Jason Flom started in the music industry, putting up posters in record stores for Atlantic Records. He eventually became the guy who finds young talent and gets them in the ears of big, important people. And when he hears something in an artist, whether it's Twisted Sister or the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, he's excitable, maybe even a little annoying in his enthusiasm.

FLOM: I love this music. I want to share my excitement. I know no one else loves it as much as I do, but I'm going to do everything I have to do to get people to notice them.

LIMBONG: He started applying this energy to people in prison after he read a story in the New York Post about Steven Lennon, sentenced to 15 years for cocaine possession. It was 1993, and Flom was still coming up in the music world.

FLOM: I didn't know anything about the drug laws. But I had had substance abuse problems when I was a kid. And I was very conscious of the fact that because I came from the neighborhood I came from, the zip code I came from, the family I came from and because I was employed, I was sent to rehab.

LIMBONG: Flom called Lennon's mother and then called in a favor from the lawyer who worked with both Skid Row and Stone Temple Pilots.

FLOM: Both of whom I had discovered. And so since I was working with them and they were getting arrested it seems like every week, I had him on speed dial, right?

LIMBONG: Six months later, Flom, sporting a mullet and purple Doc Martens, was in the courtroom with the family and the lawyer.

FLOM: And the judge says some blah, blah, blah, blah - whatever the hell he says. And he goes, and under the power vested in me, the motion is granted. And he bangs the gavel down.

LIMBONG: They won. And to this day, Flom carries that feeling around.

FLOM: And I was like, oh, my God, that's the greatest thing I've ever heard. Like, this - oh, I just knocked something down.

LIMBONG: From there, Flom got involved with a number of criminal justice advocacy groups, which led him to the Innocence Project, the long-standing organization that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people. Co-founder Barry Scheck says, from the start, Flom has been interested in helping people after they're exonerated with the real-life stuff the formerly incarcerated need when they get out - a job, a car, a place to stay.

BARRY SCHECK: That's where Jason has really been a lifesaver for so many people. You know, if you need a root canal, Jason will pay for it, you know?

LIMBONG: Scheck says he sees Flom's podcast as an extension of this work, another marketing tool for getting people's stories out there. The podcast recently launched spinoffs, looking at how bad science and false confessions play into wrongful convictions. Flom says one of his goals is to create a more thoughtful and educated pool of jurors.

FLOM: Then, by definition, we will be helping to prevent future wrongful convictions just by virtue of people going in there educated and armed with information.

LIMBONG: Flom's still got his day job as CEO of Lava Records, scouting and signing new talent. With policing and racism in the headlines right now, I asked him if people from his music world were doing enough to help people from his criminal justice world. And he gave a vaguely diplomatic answer about how everybody has a thing to focus on and support. But then, ever the marketer...

FLOM: Also, I would say almost everyone at some point has broken some sort of a law.

LIMBONG: Before moving on to two other wrongful conviction cases he wanted to spotlight.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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