“I’ve never seen the justice side of the justice system,” says Meek Mill in Free Meek, Amazon’s staggering, necessary docuseries about the rapper and his struggles with a flawed criminal justice system. If you’re remotely familiar with Meek’s story—even just a song or two, really—you already know exactly what he’s talking about.
Meek was convicted in 2007 of drug and gun possession as a teenager. Years later, the circumstances of the conviction were found to be highly suspect. However, he remained on probation for the original crimes, beginning a painful, decade-plus-long journey of countless probation hearings and numerous trips to prison. To recap: Meek’s defense team requested that the case be reassigned because the original judge, Genece Brinkley, “exhibited enormous bias.“ Brinkley declined, leading Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner to step in, filing an appeal with the Pennsylvania Superior Court in May asking for a new trial with a new judge. Free Meek captures it all, showing the nearly absolute power the system can have over an innocent person—and how much it takes to break free of it.
For Meek, it took his management, Roc Nation, getting involved. They hired a private investigation firm, QRI, to look for anything that could help vacate the rapper’s conviction. Led by Tyler Maroney and Luke Brindle-Kym, who also worked on HBO’s The Case Against Adnan Syed, that’s exactly what they did, uncovering new information about the prosecution’s sole witness in the 2007 case, former Philadelphia police officer Reginald Graham. The Philadelphia Police Department found in an internal investigation that Graham had engaged in “criminal conduct,” including theft, before he testified against Meek—an allegation which Graham denies. He resigned following the investigation, which had no impact on Meek’s case until Maroney’s team got involved. Last month, Krasner’s office overturned the rapper’s conviction based on the new evidence, granting him a new trial in a case that has stretched for 12 years.
Maroney and Brindle-Kym figure heavily into the series starting in Episode Three, when the focus switches from Meek’s biography and the documentary becomes more of a true crime thriller. Esquire spoke with Maroney, who co-founded QRI and previously worked as a journalist, about the criminal justice system and what it took to finally make progress on Meek’s case.
ESQ: Free Meek really picks up when you are introduced in the film. Could you recap the story about when you first heard that you were going to work on Meek’s case? What was that call like?
TM: We got the call the day that he was detained. At first, the assignment was relatively small. It was to do a little bit of research into the charge because there had been some rumors swirling about the judge. Everyone in Meek’s circle and beyond was shocked that he would be given a prison sentence of up to four years for something so minor.
So from the very beginning it was a thrilling assignment, because not only is it exciting to work for somebody so high profile, but our firm is based largely on what we call “investigations in the public interest.” And we knew that this was an opportunity to do something big.
ESQ: That’s interesting that it came off as a small thing at first. It’s a wild line in the documentary when you talk about how Meek’s friends and family would tell you that every minute you don’t find something, the more time Meek’s going to be in jail.
TM: It’s true. They would say: “Your job isn’t done until Meek is free.” And that is an energizing thing to hear because most of our clients have limited budgets and time frames. And although we obviously had a limited time frame because Meek was behind bars, we knew that this was a situation where they were going to do whatever it took. And although we were excited, and the original assignment was relatively narrow, what was most thrilling in many ways about the case was that the client was open to as many ideas as we come up with on how to help.
So we suggested that we go all the way back to the beginning of the case, and turn over every single stone. And then when we turn over all those stones, find other stones and then turn these stones over. And they were open to that because we had worked on so many similar projects, looking at cases where there was either a wrongful conviction, or some holes to be poked in the prosecution, or the police detectives’ case. And that’s when it got really interesting when we started looking at the conduct of the officers involved.
ESQ: In the documentary, it seems like Roc Nation was kind of like, “Go figure this out. Whatever you can do, just go do it.” That’s when it becomes an investigation. It’s exciting following you guys when you go to the site of the original crime.
TM: I was a journalist 15 years ago, and if I ever went back to journalism, I would be a much better journalist now that I’ve done this work because I specifically focus on investigative work. And I think that’s a lesson I have kept in mind and Luke has kept in mind for many years, which is, go back to the scene of the crime, so to speak. Even if it’s not a crime, like you have to see the primary sources, you have physically walk the locations that you’re writing about. Meet the people that you want to speak with. We were given the freedom to go and eat with any witness we wanted to. So we weren’t necessarily just making phone calls. We had to present ourselves as credible and to do everything we could to try to persuade people—often who were reluctant to speak—that we had something real to say and that we had some questions that needed an answer.
ESQ: What was the toughest interview for you? Any specific instance that sticks out?
TM: There were plenty of witnesses who just slammed the door in our faces, or who said, “I won’t talk to you.” They felt that they could figure out our motives before hearing us make our own case while we were there. What we try to do in our work is to distinguish ourselves from many others in our industry who are stereotyped as, you know, PIs who kind of lurk in the shadows with long lenses. There’s a lot of press around bad actors in our industry, like former intelligence operatives who use fake identities. We, like journalists, walk right in the front door, sometimes literally, to try to get answers.
ESQ: Just to zoom out a little bit: When you were working on Meek’s case, were you surprised by how much the criminal justice system failed him?
TM: In many ways we have a unique vantage point because when we’re hired by lawyers who are criminal defense attorneys, the very purpose of our assignment is to help collect facts that can shed light on—if not straight up injustice, and corruption, and wrongdoing—but poking holes in the government’s case. And this is not to suggest that the government is always wrong, but it’s that we are, in many ways, just set up to oppose the “official record.” And that gives us, in many ways, a contrarian approach to the official line, which is a thrilling place to be. And I think investigative journalists often feel the same way.
Having said that, to your point about a larger question, working on cases like this that have an impact on—whether it’s criminal justice reform or other issues that benefit the public interest, we are not surprised because we make it our business to play in that world and to help bring those kinds of cases. In Meek’s case, we were incredibly fortunate that we were able to have the kind of success that we did, which led to his literal freedom.
ESQ: I was surprised by the limitations Judge Brinkley was able to impose on Meek, like putting him on house arrest and not allowing him to work for a three-month period.
Yeah, we have come across it before. I mean, not on this scale, right? It was really revelatory to us, and I hope it’s regulatory to others who either read about the saga or watch the show, because I think it does a good job. While I think many people have this sense that punishment for crime is often limited to either paying a fine or serving time in prison, but in fact, such a huge percentage of what people are required to do or are sanctioned by the government is essentially being put on surveillance. They watch your movements, they restrict what you can do. It’s almost like people are set up to fail. And, although we didn’t have any direct ability and don’t, as private investigators, to directly change that system, what we’re hoping is that this will help shed light on exactly that issue that you’re addressing.
ESQ: The documentary seems to imply that Meek’s situation was particularly difficult.
Well, this was a pretty egregious case. And it depends on the system, you have federal and you have state. County courts have very wide discretion over how to treat defendants who appear before them. I mean, if Brinkley had given Meek a much less aggressive sentence, like to pay a fine, for example, I don’t know that we would have gotten the call to help. So, were we surprised? Look, it’s always surprising when you prove that a police officer, a decorated police officer was engaged in criminal behavior [Graham was never convicted of any crime, nor admitted to any wrongdoing]. And we had his former colleagues telling us that on the record, and then we found documents to support it. These weren’t just rumors or hearsay. This is real evidence that we brought forth to our client, which then made its way into the court, which was then cited by not only Larry Krasner, the D.A., but the appeals court just a week or two ago when it vacated two convictions.
ESQ: A lot of times in the doc after Meek’s probation hearings, a lyric video plays for one of his songs. I mean, he’s directly recounting incidents from these hearings in his music. And I think the effect on his art is really hard to argue against.
TM: Yeah, I mean, if you’ve listened to his most recent album, it may be in every song, or certainly every other song, where he draws on this experience. And, I don’t think he names Brinkley, but he talks about the judge, he talks about what it felt like, and he talks about the system. And they say write what you know, right? Well, that’s exactly what he was doing in writing his new album. And, if people don’t get it from an article that you write or from the documentary, maybe they’ll get it from the music itself.
ESQ: Exactly. Is there anything that didn’t make it on film that you think is important to know?
TM: I mean for every successful interview, we had ten other interviews that either resulted in a witness declining to speak to us, or speaking for hours but not having anything substantive to say. So, I think if it doesn’t come through in the documentary, there’s no question that the amount of work that we did, and not just us, but these lawyers, these supporters behind the scenes was really a full-time job for six months. And it’s kind of what is needed to be done—which most defendants who are navigating the criminal justice do not have the resources to do, by Meek’s own admission. He talks a lot about how he had resources himself. But he also had Jay-Z. He had Michael Rubin. These criminal justice reform organizations that were helping out. So it was a group effort, for sure.
The case is still going on. Just yesterday, as you may know, there was a hearing that was postponed until August 27.
ESQ: It was moved, right?
TM: Yeah, it was moved. I can imagine it being an incredibly anxious period for him, as the last decade of his life has been. And we are on standby to continue to work to the extent that is necessary for his team. So I think that’s one thing that, just because the film is out, doesn’t mean it’s over yet.
ESQ: So you’re still very much involved in your day-to-day with this?
TM: Yeah, we talk to him all the time. I mean, the bulk of the work happened already, but there may be more to do, because let’s imagine that Krasner decides he wants to try Meek again, then we’d have to prepare for a trial. And that is, you know, a lot of what we’ve done already may benefit this defense team. But I can imagine there would be other witnesses to find, there’d be other documents to interrogate. You know, it’s a whole different strategy, like making a motion to get someone out of prison, who’s been put there because of probation violations, is a very different legal strategy than preparing for a trial where there are witnesses to not only attack yourself from the defense side, but to bring in support of your strategy. And to attack the concept that Meek is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.