For Jason Flom, the process of proving an incarcerated person’s innocence is an around the clock task. Before the beginning of this interview, the Lava Records CEO took a call from a prisoner named Jon-Adrian “JJ” Velazquez, who was sentenced to 25 years in Sing-Sing Prison for murder. According to a 2014 NBC report, Velazquez – who has been detained since 1998 –pleaded with the courts to grant him another trial where he’ll present evidence that could solidify his innocence.
His story and a number of others who’re fighting to prove their guiltlessness are highlighted on Flom’s weekly podcast titled Wrongful Conviction. Through phone or in person interviews, Flom shines a light on a handful of prisoners’ stories of how being framed by law enforcement or being in the wrong place at the wrong time altered the course of their lives, and how they plan to make up for stolen time once they’re released.
Most of these cases are also intertwined with the quarter of a century old organization, Innocence Project. Through DNA evidence, the entity seeks to free those who’ve been the subject of false convictions and help them adapt to the demands of society after enduring lengthy sentences. “Exonerating somebody is a herculean task, even though it’s just one person,” Flom said. “But we try to use exonerations to drive changes in policy.”
Below, Flom discusses the detrimental cycle of populating private prisons, and how we can hold the criminal justice system accountable for wrongful convictions.
What factors play into a wrongful conviction?
Jason Flom: There are a lot of different causes of wrongful convictions, some of the most common ones are false confessions, which are shockingly common and overwhelmingly powerful when a jury hears your confession. They don’t care about anything else. There are cases where DNA proves the person didn’t do it. Police and prosecutorial misconduct, and Brady violations are very common where we find that prosecutors withhold exculpatory evidence, which is everybody that watches TV knows you can’t do that, but they do it. Then there’s eyewitness misidentification which is the most common cause of wrongful convictions because there are so many problems with eyewitness identification including the fact that when you witness a crime your judgment gets so screwy because your adrenaline gets so elevated. You end up wanting to help solve the crime, but there’s all these pressures. Then there are things that relate to eyewitness identification like what we call double blind. That means the police officer conducting the interrogation must not know who the suspect is so they can’t lead you in a certain direction whether consciously or subconsciously.
The way mug shots are viewed is important and another cause of wrongful convictions because people should only see one mug shot at a time. When you see multiple ones on a page it messes up your perception or your memory. And then forensics. We’ve shown that there’s been so many examples of so-called experts testifying as to forensic evidence, and either lying or being wrong. There’s the fact that most people who are arrested and brought to trial are represented by public defenders. There are a lot of very good public defenders, but every one of them are overworked, underpaid and understaffed. If anybody hasn’t seen that movie Gideon’s Army, I recommend it. It really gives you an idea of how bad that problem really is. You really don’t have much of a chance once the system gets you. If you’re poor, you have a real problem.
How do you receive these cases?
We have an in-take department and we receive approximately 200 letters a month from people who need our help whether it’s an inmate or a family member, typically of an inmate. We have people who are trained to review those letters and try to determine if the claims of innocence have some veracity. Then we have to find out whether there’s DNA, if we decide to move forward to determine whether there’s DNA in the case, because the Innocence Project works on DNA. It’s a whole process and as you can imagine it’s something that we take extremely seriously.
There are four tent-poles that the Innocence Project aims to tackle: Exonerate, Improve, Reform, Support. Which one takes the most legwork to accomplish?
Exonerating somebody is a herculean task, even though it’s just one person, but we try to use exonerations to drive changes in policy. If we have somebody convicted, for instance, on bite mark evidence, which recently we’ve proven is complete nonsense. There’s no such thing as bite mark evidence. There’s nobody alive that can tell if you bit somebody, they can’t tell whether it was you or anybody else. It’s impossible. It’s this whole field of forensic odontology. It’s a joke as it relates to these cases. The reason that forensic odontology even exists is because in cases of disasters like an earthquake or the collapse of a building where somebody is completely unrecognizable, they take your whole set of teeth and then they compare it to your dental records. But when you bite somebody or something, they only use a couple of teeth and you’re biting on an imperfect surface, and leaving an odd mark. There’s no way to compare that. It doesn’t work. We’ve taken cases with bite marks, and after exonerating somebody who’s served decades in prison, we will then go to lawmakers and try to have the laws changed so that it’s no longer a type of evidence that’s admissible in court. None of these things are easy, I don’t know which one is the hardest. Reforms are probably the hardest because you have to convince a lot of people, whether on the state or federal level.
Do you think this high rate of wrongful convictions has something to do with the monetary aspect of private prisons?
That’s one of the uniquely American tragedies. I don’t know of any other country where they have private prisons. It goes back to, I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. She shows in very straightforward terms how it’s a new form of slavery because after slavery was outlawed, it wasn’t for convicts. They began filling the prisons with poor black people that they would pick up on the street for any reason; not having a job, not carrying an ID, and put them in prison. It still goes on to this day to an extent. That’s why Ferguson erupted, not just because of [Mike Brown’s] death, which was terrible, but because they’ve finally had enough. Or even when L.A. erupted, they had enough of being arrested for not mowing their lawn the right way or riding a bicycle on the sidewalk and ending up in jail. There is a profit motive because a lot of the mainstream products that people who are reading this use probably everyday are made by prisoners who are getting paid 19 cents an hour or nothing. In some places they make you work for nothing and if you refuse they take away your privileges; you’re not going to have any visits, you’re not going to have this or that. It’s like the few privileges that you do have when you’re in the system they take away. It’s a terrible situation all the way around. [Fyodor] Dostoevsky says “You can judge a society by the quality of their prisons.” I’m paraphrasing, but here it’s dreadful. They are violent, scary, terrible places that have very little focus on rehabilitation. It’s all about dehumanization and punishment.
You really don’t have much of a chance once the system gets you. If you’re poor, you have a real problem. ~ Jason Flom
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