For Life, which premieres this week on ABC, is a different kind of legal procedural. This promising new drama from Hank Steinberg (Without a Trace) centers on the courtroom battles of Aaron Wallace (Nicholas Pinnock), a man wrongly convicted and serving a life sentence. Somehow — and remember this is television — Aaron obtains a law degree in prison and is admitted to the bar in New York. There he pursues justice for his fellow inmates while working on the dismissal of charges against himself.
For Life joins a growing number of series devoted to exploring wrongful conviction and the ordeal that convicts must go through to have their cases retried and verdicts overturned. But it stands out in two ways. First, unlike nonfiction series like Free Meek and Confession Tapes, For Life has the look and feel of an ABC courtroom drama. Second, it’s based on the life of a real-life person, Isaac Wright Jr., a man whose story is so incredible Disney+ should consider making a companion documentary or podcast.
As the law firm that now employs him puts it, Wright was “wrongfully accused and convicted of being the mastermind behind one of the largest drug distribution networks in the New York/New Jersey areas.” In prison he decided not to help just himself but others. He became a paralegal handling other inmates’ cases while working on his own appeal.
When he finally had his case put together, Wright brought down a whole house of cards. He got one of the arresting officers to confess to police misconduct. The judge overseeing the trial went to prison. The D.A. who convicted Wright killed himself. And ultimately, Wright was not only freed but passed the bar and now practices law in the Tri-State area.
After two episodes of For Life, I’m in. Still, the character of Aaron Wallace diverges quite a bit from Wright’s story in ways some viewers may find hard to take. Notably, Wright never rose above paralegal while in prison. Thus when we see Aaron taking the prison bus to court, then changing from his orange jumper into a business suit in the men’s room… that never happened.
I was curious to know what the real Isaac Wright thought after watching his “reimagined” version on TV. I caught up with him at the TCA winter press tour in California.
AB: I really love the show, but the dramatic liberties that they take with your story, you were happy with those?
Isaac Wright Jr.: Yes, very happy. When I look at what’s going on with the way they’re creating the show, I see a platform that inspires people. It’s that inspiration that I really hang my hat on, even though it's fictionalized. It tells my story and the story of everybody that’s been in prison. The liberties they take are not important as the message. That's what's important.
AB: You mean, reminding viewers that we have a presumption of innocence in this country?
Wright: It’s so profound. When I went through (the system), it wasn’t like that. There was a presumption of guilt, even though they said it was a presumption of innocence. And you know, the media played a part in perpetrating that narrative. One of the things that prosecutors always did was get out their press releases first, so that by the time a trial came along, the defendant was already presumed guilty in the media before he even went to trial.
Today you’re seeing a different narrative. I think that narrative is going to save the lives of thousands of people eventually. It’s a beautiful thing. Well, that speaks to the larger issue, right?
AB: In Kansas City, where I’m from, there’s a gentleman named Darryl Burton who was released after his wrongful conviction and has started a ministry called Miracle of Innocence. He estimates there are perhaps 100,000 wrongfully convicted persons behind bars. How will there ever be justice on that scale? And what difference can one show make?
Wright: Well, a show can make a difference, in the sense that it will protect people from this point forward. There’s really no justice for a person that has lost their life to the system, whether they died in jail an innocent person, or spent decades before they were exonerated. You can never achieve justice from something like that. The only thing that you can achieve is a peace of mind, hopefully. But in terms of how this show could help people, I think today is the day that we have to live in.
For Life premieres on ABC Tuesday February 11th at 10:00 PM ET.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.