This week, we dive into What We Don't Know about wrongful convictions with the Innocence Project's founding member, Jason Flom. Flom is known in the music industry as a record label CEO and music executive, but he sits down to talk to Xander about his passion for ending wrongful convictions. "I'm so lucky to have found my calling.", Flom states, "I hope that everyone finds something that motivates them in that way, and they get to experience that same type of joy from making a difference."
"It's pretty self-explanatory.", Flom says, describing the imprisonment of innocent people. With an already extraordinarily high number of 2.3 million in prison, Flom estimates that between four-five percent of those are not guilty. Jason warns of the short- and long-term trauma and consequences these victims face in unhealthy and unsafe jails. "In jail, it's chaos," He says, "The only thing that could make the prison experience for an innocent person worse; to have COVID raging through the prisons." Among the many issues leading to the "system being stacked against" defendants, Flom identifies bail as a significant one. When people can't afford bail, they're behind bars as pre-trial detainees, which can take months to years. Jason believes that "Between 4-5 hundred thousand people on any given night (are) in jail, in America, who haven't been convicted of anything".
Another contributor is what he refers to as a "guilty plea problem in this country." When prosecutors leave the defendant feeling backed against the wall with little to no favorable choices, these pleas happen, threatened with lengthy sentences combined with an inadequate public defense. Flom says all-too-often public defenders are overworked or incompetent, sometimes not even knowing the defendant's name. "They (the lawyers) haven't visited you, they're juggling four hundred cases, they may be drunk, they may be anything, that's the 'Sophie's choice’."
Flom explains how the focus on a police cases' closure is a big issue leading to false confessions and what Flume and his colleagues call "junk science." Junk science is the use of evidence as fact, which in reality has flaws such as fingerprints. Eye witness accounts are often inaccurate. "People think that our minds work like a camera; it couldn't be further from the truth," explains Flom, "Eyewitness identification has been proven in certain studies to be less accurate than guessing."
While many believe that a confession seals guilt, Flom points out that 25% of the first 150 people exonerated by science had confessed to the crime. It usually impacts defendants who are young, mentally challenged or have been in the military. Investigators can lie and intimidate during interrogations. "Everyone has a breaking point," Flom says, sharing a story of a 17-year-old who was interrogated for 25 hours in California.
Flom believes things can get better between his work and the work of so many others. With over 20 million downloads, his podcast inspired a legislator in Washington state to sponsor a bill making it mandatory to film interrogations. He wants to end the "natural bias" people have when they see a defendant and evoke more thought in the judging process. "We buy into this CSI myth that these amazing people are solving all of these crimes', Flom says, "We really need to have a more educated and more skeptical jury pool who will really look at the people that are presenting the evidence."
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