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Jason Flom has one question for supporters of the death penalty: “What percentage of innocent people are you OK with executing?”
The music executive, who has shaped the careers of artists such as Katy Perry, Lorde, and Greta Van Fleet, isn’t being glib.
“There’s always going to be a percentage,” he tells The Independent from his home in Los Angeles. “[People say,] ‘No, we have to be really sure.’ What does that mean? Even if you removed all the perverse incentives that cause wrongful convictions, you’d still have a system in which there’s human error. So there’s always going to be a percentage.”
Flom is one of more than 150 business leaders who have joined the anti-death penalty campaign launched by Sir Richard Branson and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ), a non-profit organisation that works with the private sector to champion fairness in the criminal justice system.
Other industry signatories to the pledge include Merck Mercuriadis, founder of the Hipgnosis Songs Fund.
“Business leaders are major contributors to the global economy and we need to step up and use our voices to create systemic change,” Mr Mercuriadis said earlier this year. “The death penalty needs to end, and we need to be part of making that happen.”
Music industry activism around the death penalty isn’t new. Capital punishment disproportionately affects Black people in the US, and entertainers of colour have long led the way on execution activism.
The legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington, for example, worked with the NAACP and performed at benefit concerts for the Scottsboro Boys, a group of Black teens who were falsely convicted of rape in 1931 and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. Their case is considered one of the most famous miscarriages of justice in US history. Artists such as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone used their work during the civil rights movement to call attention to lynchings, a practice that shares historical roots with the death penalty.
In recent years, the industry has seen a new wave of activism and intersectional art coinciding with the Black Lives Matter Movement. Rapper Kendrick Lamar delivered a memorable performance at the 2016 Grammy awards recreating a prison chain gang. Beyoncé showed herself appearing to drown on a New Orleans police car in the video for her hit “Formation” – the same year she released the album and film Lemonade, expanding on the themes of racism and police brutality. Kim Kardashian West has used her considerable platform to advocate for justice issues, lobbying Donald Trump to grant clemency to a number of lifetime and death row inmates. She has called for a stop to the impending execution of death row inmate Julius Jones, a man on Oklahoma death row whom she visited in 2020. Jones has been behind bars for decades for a murder he says he didn’t commit, with a growing body of evidence to back up his claims.
Flom’s own criminal justice reform efforts date back to the 1990s. He was a founding board member of the Innocence Project, a non-profit created in 1992 to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. In 2016, he launched the Wrongful Conviction podcast, on which he has interviewed exonerees as well as imprisoned people who maintain they did not commit the crimes they have been convicted for. (Recent interviewees have included Ron Jacobsen, a man who spent 30 years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence; Carlon Roman, who was exonerated this summer of a wrongful 1990 murder conviction; and Joe D’Ambrosio, sentenced to death in 1989 and exonerated after 22 years.) Flom also hosts the Righteous Conviction podcast, currently in its second season, featuring interviews with advocates who have also fought to reform the American criminal justice system.
Flom’s decision to join the fight to end the death penalty in the US was motivated in part by his belief that death isn’t a mode of punishment fit for an unceasingly imperfect system. Beyond that is the existential belief that killing people isn’t a punishment a country should be able to enact on its citizens, even if a mistake were somehow rendered impossible.
“Every other Western country came to this conclusion generations ago,” he says. “The one thing that sticks in my head is why do we kill people to show that killing people is wrong?”
At this, Flom walks to his bathroom to show me a book he’s been reading: defence lawyer Marc Bookman’s A Descending Spiral: Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays. In it, Bookman writes about cases involving “drunken lawyering, prosecutorial misconduct, racist judges and jurors”, and mental illness.
“That book examines cases of people who are not innocent,” Flom says. “What you learn in it is some of these people may have been technically guilty, but you start to learn about some of the circumstances and you go, ‘Oh, that’s not okay.’”
Flom had a major “that’s not okay” moment of his own in 1993, when he read a story “in the New York Post, of all places”, about a man named Steven Lennon who had been handed a prison sentence of 15 years to life for a first-time, nonviolent cocaine possession charge in New York State.
“I saw this article and my head exploded,” Flom says. “Everything I thought I knew about justice and equity and fairness and the blindfolded lady with the scales of justice – that was all out the window” Flom saw similarities between his life and Lennon’s.
“I had been a drug addict myself as a kid,” he says. “I was the same age as he was when I read the article. He had been in prison for eight years. I had been sober for about eight years. I’m not a religious person, but there but for the grace of God go I.”
The moment turned into a call for action for Flom: “I didn’t know that there was nothing that could be done, so I decided to do something.” Flom called a criminal defence attorney he knew from his career in the music industry and asked whether anything could be done for Lennon.
“He said, ‘No, but I’ll help you anyway. And we ended up in a courtroom six months later. [The lawyer] found some legal loophole. I sat there, and the judge banged the gavel down and sent [Lennon] home. And I That was the greatest feeling I’ve ever had. I was like, ‘Holy s***, I have a superpower. Now I’ve got to use it.”
Flom’s career as a music executive has fuelled his perseverance as an advocate.
“In both cases, we work on long shots,” he says, pointing out that 60,000 new songs get added to Spotify every day. “A large percentage of them never get listened to even once. The idea that somebody can actually break through requires magic and hard work and talent and everything else. And there are 2.12 million people in prison in America, and 4.5 million on probation and parole. The idea that we can help to extricate someone [from the system] is also a long shot. It shouldn’t be, but it is.”
The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.