Isaac Wright Jr. was living through his own worst nightmare. After a move to further his career, he ended up behind bars with a life sentence for a crime he did not commit. Yet even from within a maximum security prison, he refused to back down. The truth would soon come emerge, and the consequences would make history.
Before Everything Fell Apart
Isaac Wright Jr. was living a relatively normal life. He had three loves: music, his wife, and his 5-year-old daughter. Luckily, those loves merged at times: his wife, Sunshine, was part of a popular all-female music group that Isaac had helped co-create, called the Cover Girls.
Wright had found some success of his own in the music industry. He had established himself as an entrepreneur as an independent record producer. “Everything was going really, really, really good,” Wright later recounted to Esquire Magazine. “And sometime after it started going well for us, we decided to move to New Jersey.” There, everything would take a sharp turn for the worst.
A Not-So-Smooth Move
Wright and his wife were doing what many people in the music industry were doing at the time: closing up and transplanting their lives to the New York City area with hopes of furthering their careers. With just a short commute between them and the city, his family now had access to one of the largest music industries in the United States.
But there was also a darker aspect of moving to New Jersey. Within his local county’s police force and the prosecutor’s office there was a corruption scheme taking place, in particular when it came to the chief county prosecutor, Nicholas Bissell. Wright had no way of knowing this at the time, but his life was about to be wrapped up in this plot — and it would threaten everything he held dear.
Falling In With The Wrong Crowd
This was not Wright’s first time living in the New York City area, and as soon as he moved back to his old stomping grounds, he found himself reconnecting with some of the people he had hung out with before in the past. “A lot of them were not on the up and up,” Wright later said in an interview.
Meanwhile, all the while, police were investigating drug crime, and started to focus in on Wright’s old group of friends. “A group of police officers took down certain license plate numbers, and they started investigating those individuals,” Wright explained. “So that’s actually how I came to be on [the police’s] radar and initially got targeted.” What could they want from him?
According to Wright, the county prosecutor’s office was interested in going after wealthier individuals. And with a growing music career, Wright found himself to be a target. “Tie that in with this scheme, and then eventually, I was arrested,” Wright said.
It was 1989, and Wright was charged with not only being involved in a cocaine trafficking ring, but was pinned as the leading kingpin of that ring. And the bad news kept coming. Wright found out that he was being charged under the state’s Drug Kingpin Law, which meant that he was facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison. The catch? He had never committed this crime.
Planning The Next Move
Wright needed help, and he needed it fast. He began to look around for a lawyer that could help him evade a life sentence and assist him in proving his innocence in a court of law. But yet again, nothing went as planned.
“I interviewed some attorneys and they said the best I could do was 20 years,” Wright said. “‘You plead guilty and you get 20 years, you plead guilty and you get 15 years.’ That’s the lowest time I heard.” Wright was astounded. Was he really about to go to prison for 15-20 years and plead guilty to a crime he did not commit?
A Crazy Decision
Wright was not at all satisfied by the answers he was hearing from the lawyers he had met with. “I decided at that moment that if I was going to prison I wasn’t going to pay someone to send me to prison,” Wright said in an interview with Metro US.
“I decided to put the gloves on, string up the boots, and get into the fight myself,” Wright declared. At that moment, Wright did what many professionals in the legal field would have considered to be crazy: he decided he would represent himself as his own lawyer. And the fight for his life was going to come crashing to a halt in a devastating way.
The Trial Begins
Wright, who only had a high school diploma, stood as his sole defender in his own trial. The situation looked dire. “I knew early on that I was going to prison for the rest of my life and there was nothing that no one was going to be able to do to help me,” Wright explained.
At trial, things went no better. “Everyone on the witness stand at trial, there were people up there and I had no clue who they were. I had never seen them a day in my life, and they were pointing the finger at me saying that I was their boss,” Wright exclaimed. He examined the evidence that had been provided, and knew it was stacking against him. That’s when he received devastating news.
A Heavy Sentence
In 1991, two long years after Wright was first arrested, he heard his sentence. He had been found guilty by the court, and received a life sentence, plus additional years for other charges that had been stacked against him. He would be eligible for parole only after 30 long years in prison.
The sentence hit Wright like a ton of bricks. His entire life would be spent behind bars, based on evidence that was totally fabricated. From the moment he was taken out of the courtroom in handcuffs, he knew one thing for certain. He had to do something to fix this injustice, and he had to do it before he lost his whole life to the prison system.
Starting A Life Sentence
Wright was taken straight to a maximum security prison. He knew he did not want the years he would spend in prison to go to waste, and he desperately strove to fight back against his own conviction. So he began to study law at the prison’s library, and quickly started helping fellow inmates with their own cases.
Over the course of seven and a half years, Wright was able to successfully free twenty of his fellow inmates from prison. “The act of representing other prisoners who were also wronged was a part of me fighting them back and getting them back for what they had done to me,” Wright explained. And soon, he would get the chance to fight back on his own case.
The Downfall of Wright’s Prosecutor
As Wright continued to serve his time in a maximum security prison, there was trouble brewing beyond the prison walls. The lead prosecutor in Wright’s case was facing legal issues of his own. Prosecutor Bissell was fighting charges of mail fraud, tax evasion, and abuse of power after he offered to drop a man’s charges should he forfeit two expensive pieces of land that he owned.
That man contacted the FBI and IRS, who had found that this fit into a pattern of behavior that was continuing behind the scenes at the county prosecutor’s office. In September 1995, Bissell was indicted on a total of 30 federal charges. That’s when the story took a truly wild turn.
The Prosecutor Faces His Indictment
By May 1996, everyone who had heard about Bissell’s case waited to hear the verdict. It was one of the most sweeping admissions of prosecutor corruption in New Jersey history. And the fallout was swift for Bissell. He was convicted on all 30 charges, and faced a sentencing between 6 and 10 years in federal prison.
Bissell was allowed to wait out his sentencing at home, under the agreement that he would have to wear an electronic bracelet that would track his movements up until his hearing. But on November 18, 1996, Bissell cut off the electric tracker and made a run for it, prompting a nationwide search.
One End, Another Beginning
It was two days before Bissell’s sentencing trial, and the disgraced prosecutor was on the run. Police used cell phone tracking to trace his location all the way across the country, to a hotel in Nevada. Once the police reached the hotel room, there was a deadly standoff.
Bissell had written a suicide note, providing evidence that he had planned to take his own life. Ultimately, Bissell died when he shot himself just as police were trying to persuade him to surrender during a 10-minute standoff. Bissell’s life was over, but his actions and crimes were still ruining what was left of Wright’s life. That wouldn’t remain the case for long, though.
Another Shot At Freedom
As the drama surrounding his prosecutor unfolded, Wright was continuing to work steadily towards gaining his freedom. He had successfully helped file a case that got his kingpin status overturned, and he no longer faced a life sentence. But he was still facing 70 years in jail for his other guilty charges that he was trying to have dropped. And then, prosecutors approached him with a deal.
Wright was offered a bargain that would guarantee he would go home in two years. It was a tempting offer. “I was not about to give them a single second of my life,” Wright said. “I’d rather spend the rest of my life in prison trying to get out even though I could be home in two years then to give them another second of my life. So I rolled the dice.”
Rolling The Dice
Wright, once again, represented himself in court. But this time, he actually had training, and he knew how to cross-examine. That became critical during his evidentiary hearing, when former Police Detective James Dugan took the stand. That’s when Wright’s case blew wide open.
By this time, Dugan was the chief of the Police Academy, and had years of experience as a police officer. Wright knew that he was up against a tough witness. But as he faced a tough round of cross-examination, Dugan actually began to break down and cry. And what came out of Dugan’s mouth shocked just about everyone — including Wright himself.
A Confession of Police Corruption
Dugan’s testimony was electrifying. He admitted that Bissell had made a series of secret deals with defense attorneys to have their clients testify against Wright for more lenient sentences, though none of them had ever come into contact with Wright. Dugan admitted that the cocaine that police found was part of an illegal seizure that was yet to be cleared by a judge.
Listening devices were even planted without proper permissions. All three witnesses that helped convict Wright now recanted their statements. And it all apparently had to do with Bissell’s goal of becoming a tough-on-drugs prosecutor. The audience in the courtroom audibly gasped as Dugan revealed more and more corruption at the hands of government officials.
A New Trial
It was unbelievable. Wright was able to get a seasoned police officer to admit to egregious corruption. The judge had heard enough. At the hearing, Judge Leonard Arnold said that Wright’s case and Bissell’s actions threatened “the rudimentary demands of justice.”
Judge Arnold immediately ordered that a new trial be set to retry Wright. But the new prosecutor on the case said that her office still had not gathered enough evidence to retry Wright. In yet another injustice for the innocent man, his new trial was delayed “indefinitely.” Wright was back at square one, or so it seemed at that time.
The prosecutor’s office decided initially to delay Wright’s trial until a full investigation had been carried out into Bissell. But the judge assigned to that case argued that Wright deserved “fundamental fairness” and set his bail to $250,000. His friends and family quickly scrambled to get the money together.
After seven and a half years behind bars at a maximum security prison for a crime he did not commit, Wright was a free man. He was set free on bail, and after an investigation, the charges against him were completely dropped. The surviving people responsible for the corruption scheme against him were charged and sent to prison. But Wright was not done making headlines. He was about to become a full-blown celebrity.
Making Up For Lost Time
Wright found he was a free man for the first time in years. But unlike some ex-convicts who find themselves without direction, Wright knew he had a clear path. The problem was that he, at the time, only had a high school diploma.
By 2002, Wright had earned himself an undergraduate degree and continued onto Saint Thomas University School of Law. “It was an incredible feeling and a sickening feeling,” Wright later recalled. “I went through that system, but I’m a better part of that system.” Yet even this journey to right his wrongs would soon face a whole new roadblock.
An Unwelcome Delay
After years of studying law both in prison and in law school, Wright took the New Jersey Bar Exam in 2008. On the side, he was working on a lawsuit that he had filed against the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office, and ultimately won a paltry sum that he described as being “peanuts.”
But despite passing the bar, his prison history was creeping back into his life. His scores had allowed him to pass the exam, but he was still facing an internal character review from the board before he could be considered an official lawyer. It would be a process that would take an excruciating nine years. But then one day, out of the blue, he finally got an answer.
In 2017, nine years after passing the Bar Exam, Wright was accepted into the Bar Association and officially became a lawyer. He was sworn in and began arguing cases in the same exact courtroom where he once had been wrongfully sentenced to life in prison.
Wright began to work at the law firm Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley in New Jersey. The former convicted drug kingpin took particular interest in helping people overturn their own wrongful convictions, specializing in criminal law. “I became the system in a way that was triumphant,” he said. But a project to help a friend ended up changing the course of his life yet again.
The First Rule Of Fight Club
Wright was a successful lawyer when he got a call one day from an old friend who was looking for some help. The friend owned an illegal fight club in the Bronx, and was hoping to legitimize his business by making it legal. He said that the rapper 50 Cent had agreed to perform at the flight club, but only if the business was taken out of the underground.
Wright’s friend had spent $70,000 on lawyers as he tried to legitimize his business. But after Wright took the case, he was able to get his friend a license. And this was about to be much more than just another win under Wright’s belt.
Meeting 50 Cent
Once the fight club had its paperwork in order, 50 Cent, whose real name is Curtis Jackson, agreed to perform at the club’s events. For his first performance, Wright came to see the show. And afterwards, Wright was actually able to come face-to-face with the celebrity. They would share a conversation that would prove to be life-altering.
Wright shared his story with the rapper, telling him everything from his arrest, to his sentence, to the corruption he helped expose. “It’s like a unicorn,” the rapper later said of Wright’s story. “It’s not like one in a million — it’s like there is only one.” 50 Cent took an immediate interest in the case, and he had a crazy idea to pitch to Wright just a few weeks later.
A Tale Made For TV
When Wright and Jackson began talking about Wright’s life story, Wright originally mentioned that it would make a pretty compelling movie. The rapper disagreed. He said that the twists and turns of his story would be better suited for a longer television series. And just as quickly as their interaction started, the rapper began shopping around the idea.
Jackson pitched the idea around to a few places. Ultimately, it was the ABC Network that got back to him, saying that they were interested in turning Wright’s life into a full-blown series called For Life. Wright was blown away by the news. Yet despite how far he’d managed to come, he was about to find that the joy that came with making the television show would be short-lived.
Producing His Life Story
Wright became an executive producer on the television show, and watched as the episodes were written and filmed. He observed as actor Nicholas Pinnock portrayed his life story and how it all unfolded. And it brought back all of his old emotions, both good and bad.
“Through this process, I’ve never really had the chance to reflect on my own pain,” Wright said in an interview promoting the show. “I spent so much time fighting that I didn’t take the time to reflect on what I was actually going through. It brought back experiences that were very emotional for me.” But now that Wright finally had time to reflect, he had a lot to say about what happened to him.
Reflecting On His Past
Wright had no idea what would happen to him when he was initially arrested. He had no idea that he would be sent away for life, much less that he would turn his experience into a courtroom triumph, a legal career, and a television series. But now that he is on the other side, he can see his experience more clearly.
As he draws lessons and conclusions from his saga, he says that his story is about “hope and inspiration” but that it is also about “the understanding that all the answers to all your questions and your challenges are within you. All you have to do is dig deep.”
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