NBC’s Lester Holt, Dan Slepian discuss raising the voices of the voiceless

As part of the Quattrone Center’s spring symposium at Penn Carey Law, the news veterans highlighted their work reporting on issues of mass incarceration, wrongful conviction, and criminal justice reform.

NBC's Lester Holt and colleague Dan Slepian sit in charis on a stage at Penn Carey Law.
NBC’s Lester Holt (right) and producer Dan Slepian (left) talked about their reporting work on criminal justice reform at the Quattrone Center’s 2024 symposium. (Image: Courtesy of Trevor Hayes, University of Pennsylvania)

“NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt and NBC producer Dan Slepian visited Penn Carey Law to discuss their decades-long efforts to shine a light on the issues of mass incarceration, wrongful conviction, and criminal justice reform in the United States.

The keynote conversation was part of the two-day Quattrone Center 2024 spring symposium, called From Anguish to Action: Improving Criminal System Accuracy. The Center is a national research and policy hub at Penn Carey Law working to catalyze long-term structural improvements to the nation’s criminal justice system.

Day 1 of the symposium featured panels on topics like improving police interviews and the systemic challenge of failures-to-appear plus a keynote address from Shareef Cousin, Quattrone Center Exoneree Fellow, who spent three years on death row in Louisiana for a crime he did not commit.

On the second day, Holt and Slepian were introduced by Penn Carey Law Dean Sophia Lee, who highlighted their Emmy-nominated accomplishments over the years and the groundbreaking stories they’ve worked on. “I expect that none, however, are more memorable than the time they spent two nights together in Louisiana State Penitentiary. This is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States, and it’s commonly known as Angola,” Lee said. A short video giving a behind-the-scenes look at that reporting effort to draw attention to mass incarceration was shown to the audience.

Penn Carey Law Dean Sophia Lee speaks at a podium with a screen featuring an image of NBC's Lester Holt behind her.
Penn Carey Law Dean Sophia Lee introduced Holt and Slepian. (Image: Courtesy of Trevor Hayes, University of Pennsylvania)

Holt and Slepian then sat down for a casual chat with one another and shared with the audience how each came to focus on criminal justice reform in their work and what continues to motivate them to spread awareness today.

Holt described witnessing an execution in Illinois in the late 1990s as a turning point for him. He said he’d never questioned the death penalty as punishment before then, but, while watching the rehearsed and detached nature of the proceedings, “I had an overwhelming urge to want to go, ‘Hold on a second. Can we just stop here and just talk this through a little bit?’”

He said he doesn’t take a position on the death penalty but noted that it’s impossible to witness something like that without thinking about the process, what’s behind it, who’s behind it, and why it’s done.

“That was probably the first moment that I began to look at the criminal justice system through a different lens,” Holt said. “Is our ultimate goal to make the world safer? To make our city safer? Or is it retribution? I think these are all important questions that we have to ask.”

He said Slepian began introducing him to stories that were potential wrongful-conviction cases, and he remembers feeling incredulous, wondering what the story was, because the person obviously needed a new trial. That is how, Holt said he began to understand the complexities of what the American justice system is, what it aspires to be, and what it sometimes does in terms of not looking at things “through a common sense” lens.

“People wake up, they read headlines of another person pushed in front of a subway, another person beaten down on the streets; it creates a narrative: The world is dangerous, more dangerous than it has been. We can talk about statistics, but we know that’s not the case in many of these instances,” Holt said. “But fear is out there. And we need to be able to tell these stories in a way that can get past the fear and the emotion and help people understand what exactly is happening, why it may be happening. And give us some historical perspective.”

For Slepian, criminal justice “is an issue that found me.” He said he had done a story with police officers right after 9/11 and was embedded with an NYPD homicide detective in the Bronx. “I said to him, ‘You must bring this job home’ and he said, ‘I really don’t, except this one case that’s been bothering me for a decade,’” words Slepian called “a producer’s dream.”

The detective went on to tell of a murder at a nightclub in Manhattan and how he discovered evidence that two men had been wrongly convicted but he’d been told to keep silent. Slepian’s interviews presented new evidence as he pursued the story for a number of years, leading to an eventual release of the wrongly incarcerated men.

“That was my baptism; that was my introduction to the pathology of this criminal legal system,” Slepian said. “I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing because, if a cop and a prosecutor whose job it is to lock people up can’t get their own system to listen, what else am I missing? So, for me, it was the innocence movement” that inspired him to focus on this topic, he said.

One of the wrongly convicted men in that case, David Leamas, shared a wall in prison with a man named J.J. Velazquez, said Slepian, who then wrote to Slepian saying he, too, was innocent. Slepian investigated that case as well, and after many twists, turns, setbacks, and years, Velazquez was released after more than two decades in prison. This journey is the subject of “Letters from Sing Sing,” Slepian’s podcast documenting his work on the case.

“It was the prism of innocence that opened the door to me of the humanity of everyone in prison,” he said.

Slepian said these types of stories often failed to gain traction with audiences, and his solution for this was to connect with Holt, a household name who Americans see as a trusted voice and who has a wide following.

Not all their work together is about wrongful conviction. It also looks at mass incarceration and what that’s costing the U.S. as a country.

Slepian described traveling to Germany and Norway in 2018 to examine prisons there, and was struck by how differently they administer justice. “It’s based on two words: human dignity,” he said. From officers who are trained social workers, to prisoners wearing their own clothes, being able to shut their doors for privacy and being served fresh food, it was a stark contrast to the American system.

“I came back on fire on that flight,” he said, describing how he burst into Holt’s office like Kramer on “Seinfeld” with an idea for a weeklong series called “Justice for All.” It would involve a town hall meeting at Sing Sing Correctional Facility with incarcerated people there and the two of them spending two nights at Angola prison to interact with inmates.

Holt said for him it was key that the prison stay did not feel like a stunt, like he was playing prisoner for a few days.

“Dan had a very elegant way of putting it: It’s like being embedded in a war zone. I’ve been with the military in war zones and actually put on a helmet and flak jacket because that’s what you need. I’m not playing soldier. I’m not a soldier. I just need to be close to you to understand what a soldier does,” Holt said. “That was the approach that was paramount to me that, if we’re going to do this, let's have a reason for it. And let’s be able to come back and with a texture for what mass incarceration looks like, from the inside. And that was our guiding North Star.”

They went on to discuss the men they met at Angola and at Sing Sing, as well as other cases of murders by police that flew under the radar until their reporting.

“Our job is to shine light on dark places,” Holt said.

They ended their talk with a two-minute video shot by Slepian of the moment that J.J. Velazquez was told he was being released from prison after serving 23 years for a crime he didn’t commit. As he exits the facility, he’s embraced by family, and finally his mother, whose crescendoing sobs end the piece.

“So, that’s what we do,” Slepian said.