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How Isaac Wright Jr. Overturned Life Sentence in Prison & Fought to Become Lawyer 

 

Isaac Wright Jr outside court

Isaac Wright Jr. speaks in an interview about his legal work and the appeals process after being released from prison. (Source: ABC World News)

 

By Shari Rose ~ February 21, 2019            Updated December 21, 2020

Sentenced to prison for life, Isaac Wright Jr. spent more than 7 years in jail studying law to prove his innocence. Turns out, his story was just beginning

Isaac Wright Jr. at For Life premiere

Isaac Wright Jr. at the premiere of “For Life,” a television show whose main character, Aaron Wallace, is based on Wright’s life, particularly his time in prison. (Source: HOT 97 FM)

While serving a life sentence in prison for a crime he was wrongly convicted for, Wright set to work to overturn his conviction by studying New Jersey law. Over the next several years, he built his own legal defense and served as a paralegal for inmates while behind bars. Representing himself on appeal, Isaac Wright Jr. successfully overturned his kingpin conviction and life sentence in prison. 

After that victory, Wright continued to build his case as he still faced decades in prison for a litany of other falsified drug convictions. To be fully exonerated, he knew he must expose the individuals responsible for his conviction, including the county prosecutor himself. Through a series of legal strategies, Wright exposed rampant police misconduct and illegal courtroom deals that originally condemned him to a lifetime in jail. And from there, he was just getting started. This is the incredible true story of Isaac Wright Jr.

Isaac Wright Jr. Convicted & Sentenced to Life in Jail

Wright was a music producer in 1989 when he was arrested and charged with operating a cocaine trafficking network in Somerset County. He was one of the first people charged with New Jersey’s 1986 drug kingpin law. While awaiting trial in prison, Wright studied state law and represented himself in court. In 1991, the jury determined Isaac Wright Jr. guilty, and he was sentenced to life in federal prison. 

For the next five years, Wright continued to study law and began working with a prison organization called Inmate Legal Assistance as a paralegal. He represented inmates accused of infractions, gaining valuable experience in building a legal defense. Soon, he would be representing himself in court again during the appeal process. And this time, he would be ready to expose the people and system that wrongly condemned him to life in jail. 

Wright Obtains Officer Confession That Breaks His Case Open

Through false witness testimony, falsified police reports, and bribes to defense attorneys, one New Jersey prosecutor condemned Wright to life in prison. This official’s name was Nicholas L. Bissell Jr., and was Somerset County prosecutor, a position he held for more than a decade. 

Wright understood that an overturning of his conviction would mean the prosecutor’s corrupt tactics would need to be unearthed in a courtroom. So, that’s precisely what he did.    

During an evidentiary hearing in 1996, Wright cross-examined a police officer involved with the kingpin case. Somerset County detective James Dugan confessed to a slew of misconduct violations in Wright’s case, from systemic police misconduct to illegal cover-ups, and secret deals with defense attorneys to have their clients lie under oath.

Nicholas L. Bissell in a mug shot after arrest

Somerset County Prosecutor Nicholas L. Bissell in a mug shot. (Source: U.S. Marshals Office)

Officer Dugan identified the man who personally ordered that Isaac Wright Jr. be framed for drug crimes and other serious offenses as county prosecutor Nicholas Bissell.

Breaking a code of silence during this hearing with Wright, Dugan said Bissell ordered officers to falsify police reports and fabricate evidence to get a guilty verdict from the jury. Furthermore, Dugan said that Bissell secured false testimony from witnesses and made deals with defense attorneys to encourage their clients lie on the stand and point to Isaac Wright Jr. as their drug kingpin.

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Prosecutor in Wright’s Case, Nicholas Bissell, Leads Police on Manhunt

As a result of Dugan’s testimony, Bissell was tried in court on dozens of charges in 1995. He was found guilty on 30 counts, including obstruction of justice, perjury, and abuse of power. He was put under house arrest until his sentencing trial. However, two days before he faced a judge, Bissell cut his ankle monitor and ran. An international manhunt to find him ensued. 

As a fugitive, Bissell crossed state lines and eventually led police to a Nevada hotel room. As officers broke down the door, Nicholas Bissell committed suicide.

Isaac Wright Jr. Freed From Jail After Serving 7 Years

Issac Wright jr outside of court

Isaac Wright Jr. stands outside courthouse and speaks to reporters after his release from jail. (Source: News 12 New Jersey)

In the wake of these revelations of widespread police misconduct, Isaac Wright Jr. was fully exonerated of all charges and released from prison. Wright ultimately served more than 7 years in jail at the maximum security facility in New Jersey. After his release, he settled a 1990 lawsuit against the prosecutor’s office for “peanuts,” as Wright put it. With his convictions vacated and case dismissed, he set his sights on becoming a practicing lawyer in Somerset Countythe same county that locked him away less than a decade before.

A free man, Wright continued to pursue his education and study New Jersey law. He received his undergraduate degree in 2002, and graduated from Saint Thomas University School of law in 2007. The following year, he passed the New Jersey bar exam.

All that remained in the path to become a lawyer was Wright’s admission to the bar. However, New Jersey’s legal system wasn’t through with him yet, and did everything in its power to prevent Isaac Wright Jr. from ever practicing law.

Wright’s Fight to Practice Law in New Jersey 

For the next 9 years, the state bar’s Committee on Character investigated Wright’s life.  The purpose of the committee is to determine the fitness of each candidate to practice law in New Jersey. And in their investigation, there is virtually no limit on what information the committee can collect as potential barriers to a person becoming a lawyer.

For example, Section 201:3 in the Committee on Character’s regulations stipulates that committee members can request documentation from candidate’s “named references, current or former employers, Federal and State regulators or agencies, law enforcement agencies, educational institutions, financial institutions, or medical personnel.” If the candidate refuses to cooperate, the committee has the power to deny their admittance to the state bar:

“…failure or refusal to supply information deemed relevant by the Committee … may be grounds for the withholding of certification.”

For nearly a decade, virtually every aspect of Wright’s life was subject to investigation by the state as the committee combed through Wright’s background and personal history. It eventually took an intervention from the state’s highest court to end the overreach. Isaac Wright Jr. was finally admitted to the bar by none other than the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2017. 

Today, Wright is a practicing lawyer with the firm, Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley in Newark. He is currently representing Isaiah Bell, a young man accused of first-degree murder in the death of James Kargbo in Somerset County. 

What is Wright’s legal speciality? Slaying giants:

“I went to law school for one reason and one reason only,” Wright says. “To slay giants for a price. And if the giant is big enough and the cause is important enough, I’ll do it for free, especially when it involves helping those who cannot help themselves.”

“For Life” Show Based on Isaac Wright Jr.

Isaac Wright Jr becomes a lawyer.

Isaac Wright becomes a practicing lawyer in Somerset County, NJ, in 2017. (Source: Medium)

Bringing Isaac Wright Jr. the attention he deserves, rapper and business mogul Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson began producing a show called “For Life” in 2018. With Wright as an executive producer and consultant, For Life follows Aaron Wallace and his determined fight for justice while behind bars and as a free man. Some details, including those about Wright’s wife and daughter, were changed for the television show. 

Wright has spoken extensively about his experience working with 50 Cent for the show, as well as the experience of having his life portrayed on screen in For Life. In an interview with the New York Times, Wright said that one thing that gives him hope is making the lives of the incarcerated accessible to an audience. Speaking about the character based on him, Aaron Wallace, Wright said:

Aaron Wallace in For Life

Aaron Wallace, protagonist of the television show “For Life,” is based on the life of Isaac Wright Jr. (Source: For Life/ABC)

“This show is making its viewers an extended family of a person that’s incarcerated. They’re rooting for him. They suffer when he suffers. They empathize with his struggle. And then he becomes that son or brother they couldn’t imagine it happening to.”

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Wright Announces 2021 Run for NYC Mayor

On December 1, 2020, Isaac Wright Jr. announced his candidacy for New York City mayor. In an interview with People magazine, he said that major issues to him are “criminal justice reform, housing, infrastructure, and the economy.” On Wright’s mayoral campaign site, school desegregation, transit, and policing are also highlighted as top priorities. 

Wright also spoke about the killing of George Floyd and the officer who knelt on his neck, Derek Chauvin: “[Chauvin’s] face showed no concern. There was absolutely not an iota of [comprehension of] what he was doing … But there’s a bigger picture: the true blame. The blame in totality should be put on the system.”

The True Story of Isaac Wright Jr

From a prison cell, Isaac Wright Jr. educated himself on New Jersey law and strategized his own legal defense to finally, finally, prove his innocence. He was wrongly convicted as a drug kingpin in a larger scheme orchestrated by Somerset County prosecutor Nicholas Bissell. Through working the legal system itself and unearthing damning evidence of a prosecutorial cover-up, rampant police misconduct, witness tampering, and more, Isaac Wright Jr. cleared his name, got out of jail, and set the stage for his burgeoning career as a defense lawyer. 

But how many other wrongly convicted men and women across the U.S. are sitting in their cells right now, unlawfully condemned in a system where police misconduct and corruption reign?

It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know that number. But perhaps with slayers like Wright bringing these cases to light, more giants will be set to fall.

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Shari Rose

Shari Rose

Owner of Blurred Bylines

Shari Rose created Blurred Bylines to help bring stories from marginalized perspectives and experiences into the national conversation. A former journalist and current SEO enthusiast, she does her best to combine both in her stories at BB. The articles she writes typically involve individuals or social movements that are uniquely American in their struggles, triumphs, and challenges. 💖💜💙✊🏽

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