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'Oz' Soundtrack Fights Legal Injustice

Pop Music * A portion of the proceeds from prison drama's album will help the wrongfully convicted.

January 09, 2001|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For many rap music fans, the criminal justice system has been good for only one thing--as source material for artists to express their discontent with it.

Although such politically charged music has been great for pumping up fans and selling millions of records, it has failed to effect social change. "Oz," due in stores today, may help change that.

Two percent of sales from the soundtrack to this gritty HBO prison drama will be donated to the Innocence Project, a New York group that provides pro bono legal assistance to convicted inmates who believe DNA evidence testing can prove their innocence.

"When we secured the soundtrack rights to 'Oz' . . . we wanted to do something that would benefit prisoners instead of just putting out a record," said Larry Robinson, president of Avatar, a local label specializing in hip-hop soundtracks. Robinson anticipates selling 500,000 copies of "Oz," enough to make it a gold record.

"We saw how this kind of rap philanthropy can really have an impact," Robinson said of the $10,000 his label donated to the Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt Legal Defense Fund five years ago. That money came out of the profits from the soundtrack to "Panther," the 1995 movie about the Black Panther movement, and was used to help secure Pratt's release from prison in 1997. Pratt, a former Black Panther, was convicted of murder in 1972 and sentenced to life in prison. The judge who overturned his conviction ruled that prosecutors had suppressed evidence in the case.

After reading about the Innocence Project, Robinson decided to do a similar thing with "Oz" and contacted Tom Fontana, the show's creator and executive producer.

"What's great about the album is that the songs on [it] are all about staying out of prison. It's not about how cool it is to be in prison, and that's the show too," said Fontana, who also wrote and produced the critically acclaimed TV series "St. Elsewhere" and "Homicide: Life on the Street." "I'm glad the album reflects the same philosophy."

"Oz," which takes place inside a maximum security penitentiary and centers on the struggles and power plays among inmates, began its fourth season Sunday. It has been widely praised for its realistic portrayal of prison life and averages 7 million viewers a week.

Kurupt, a West Coast G-funk rapper who contributed the song "Behind the Walls," is a fan of the show. The 27-year-old has three albums to his credit. His latest, "Tha Streetz Iz a Mutha" (Antra), was released in late 1999 and sold 440,000 copies, according to SoundScan. Like many of the soundtrack's artists who are "from the streets," he also has a personal connection to the subject matter.

"A couple of my family members are locked up right now; this is my contribution," he said. "I know a lot of people that's been wrongfully accused of different situations, so I was in support of [the record] from the door."

Kurupt is one of several A-list rappers on the soundtrack, along with Snoop Dogg, Cypress Hill, Master P and Method Man. A few of the rappers featured on the soundtrack have also made guest appearances on "Oz," Fontana said.

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This season will feature a cameo by Master P and a recurring role for Method Man, who will be in at least six episodes playing "a young convict who is trying to rise to the top of the homeboys that run the prison," Fontana said.

The show has highlighted the issue of freeing prisoners based on DNA evidence, although it has never specifically mentioned the Innocence Project in its story line. "I don't want to look like I'm doing advertising," said Fontana. "It's better for it all to be fictionalized than specific."

Still, the show has an ongoing theme in its death row story lines that Fontana describes as, "Better a guilty man is alive than an innocent man dies."

That's a philosophy he shares with Barry Scheck, the attorney who served on O.J. Simpson's defense team and who co-founded the Innocence Project. "No one is for an innocent person being in jail, I hope," said Scheck.

The Innocence Project is based at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, where Scheck is a professor. Most of the legal work is done by law students and is supervised by Scheck and his partner, attorney Peter Neufeld. Founded in 1992, the organization has thus far freed 46 people from a life behind bars.

Scheck acknowledged that he has received many offers from organizations wanting to hitch their trailers to the Innocence Project's success.

"There's been a lot of fly-by-night associations we've rejected, but these are serious people. 'Oz' is a heavy show. It's not a musical comedy," he said. "I'm very concerned that everyone understands that this is a totally serious enterprise."

Scheck has worked with numerous law enforcement agencies around the country to secure the release of wrongfully convicted prisoners. He is presently working with Congress to pass the federal Innocence Protection Act, which would provide money for DNA testing and assist wrongfully convicted prisoners should they win their release.

Except in New York, Illinois and California, the prisoners themselves must come up with the $6,000 it costs to test the evidence that may prove their innocence. "If we could get resources to do investigations and have money for testing, there's no question that we would have had many more people out of jail," Scheck said, "but there are limited resources for this."

"If we can get people thinking about what really goes on in our prisons," Fontana said, "maybe it will not only keep people out of prison but maybe it will also improve the situation that we have today."

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