The Story Behind ABC’s New True Crime Drama For Life

Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
Just two days after Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson wraps up six seasons of his Starz show Power, his next much-anticipated television project will premiere on ABC on Feb. 11. For Life is based on a true story; it loosely follows the life of a man named Isaac Wright, Jr. who was wrongfully convicted of being a drug kingpin. He then became a licensed attorney, argued to get his sentencing overturned, and eventually was exonerated. 
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On the show, the Wright character is called by the name Aaron Wallace. That and the “loosely” label means the show has the freedom to take a few creative liberties to add a little extra drama, but the facts of Wright’s case are already compelling on their own — each an irrefutable, startling example of the flawed U.S. legal system.
In ABC’s legal drama, Nicholas Pinnock plays Wallace and Wright acts as an executive producer on the series. He recently spoke at the Television Critics Association Winter 2020 Press Tour about what it was like to see a version of his story acted out. “When I had the opportunity to be on set and watch Nicholas perform, for the first time, in watching Nicholas’ performance, I was able to see myself as a third person,” he explained. “It became a therapeutic process for me to watch Nicholas and move through episode by episode with him. He was somebody that allowed me to reflect on the pain that I was going through at that time.”
The Convictions
In 1991, under New Jersey’s “drug kingpin” law at the time, Wright was found guilty of running one of the biggest narcotics distribution rings in New York City and received a life sentence. According to Prison Legal News, shortly after Wright was imprisoned, he started to study the law. He had represented himself in his first case and planned to argue his innocence again when he appealed his conviction. While studying and becoming a proxy-lawyer, the story goes, Wright simultaneously wrote briefs and motions to help 20 other inmates as he prepared for his appeal. 
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Surprisingly, Wright’s efforts and belief in himself worked. Well, sort of. His kingpin charge was reversed and his life sentence was overturned. But despite this victory, Wright remained in prison because other drug charges were tacked onto his kingpin sentence, totaling over 70 years. He continued to be incarcerated until 1996. 
Prison Time & Release
After sitting in prison for five years, Wright had another opportunity to apply the information he had learned. During an evidentiary hearing, Wright cross-examined a veteran police detective named James Dugan who was involved with this case. Through his questioning, Wright was able to get Dugan to confess that there had been a deliberate cover-up to frame Wright for the drug charges. Dugan revealed that the prosecutor who had tried Wright’s original case, Nicholas L. Bissell Jr., was responsible for pinning the crimes on Wright.
A 1996 New York Times article states that “Mr. Wright and his lawyer, Francis Hartman, proved that his 1991 conviction was based in part on an illegal seizure of cocaine by Mr. Bissell's detective squad and on perjured testimony by three co-defendants who had been offered leniency by Mr. Bissell.” The three co-defendants, according to the newspaper, retracted their original claims. 
Bissell learned about Dugan’s confession and fled the state to Nevada. He committed suicide before police arrived at the location where he was hiding. Even though he was, Dugan, says Prison Legal News, was able to avoid prison time because he pled guilty to official misconduct. However, Wright’s trial judge, Michael Imbriani, was found guilty of theft charges and removed from the bench. 
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According to the NYT, Somerset Prosecutor, Melanie B. Campbell, who was Bissell’s successor, still wanted to retry Wright. His family had to raise $25,000 for bail to have him released from jail. Eventually, all charges against Wright were dropped and he was released after over seven years in a maximum-security prison. 
After Prison
Wright received his undergraduate degree in 2002, graduated from St. Thomas University’s School of Law in 2007, and passed the New Jersey Bar in 2008. Somehow, his accomplishments still weren’t enough for the New Jersey Bar’s Committee on Character (yes, that is an actual committee that exists). The group spent nine years investigating Wright, preventing him from receiving his license to practice law. 
Finally on September 27, 2017, the New Jersey Supreme Court, the same court that had overseen his case in 1996, granted Wright admission to the New Jersey Bar. Wright cemented himself in U.S. history as a person to be given a life sentence, become exonerated, and obtain a license by the same court that had failed him. 
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