Q·In Depth

The incredible true story behind For Life, 50 Cent's new show about a wrongful conviction

For Life is a new legal and family drama from executive producer Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, but unlike the average courtroom procedural, this series gives new meaning to the saying that truth is stranger than fiction.

The series is inspired by the remarkable journey of prisoner-turned-lawyer Isaac Wright Jr.

British actor Nicholas Pinnock, left, plays Aaron Wallace, a fictionalized version of prisoner-turned-lawyer Isaac Wright Jr. (Giovanni Rufino/ABC, Getty Images)

For Life is a new legal and family drama from executive producer Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, but unlike the average courtroom procedural, this series gives new meaning to the saying that truth is stranger than fiction. 

Inspired by a story that made headlines nearly 30 years ago, For Life is loosely based on the life of Isaac Wright Jr., who was falsely accused of being a drug kingpin and sentenced to life in prison. While serving time, the former inmate taught himself law so he could prove his own innocence and overturn his conviction. After his release, he went on to become an attorney in his own right.

"He was so focused on his one goal, which was to get out of jail, that he didn't have time for grief, he didn't have time for joy, he didn't have time for anger even," Nicholas Pinnock, who plays a character inspired by Wright in For Life, told q's Tom Power. 

Wright's real-life inspirational journey starts in New Jersey in the late '80s and leads to a chance meeting with 50 Cent decades later, when the rap mogul approached the former-inmate-turned-lawyer to help him license an underground fight club in the Bronx. Here's what you need to know about the unbelievable true story behind For Life.

A wrongful conviction

In 1989, Wright was an entrepreneur and independent record producer whose life was upended when he was charged with leading one of New Jersey's largest narcotics distribution networks. In 1991, he was found guilty by a jury and received a life sentence with no eligibility for parole for 30 years.

Maintaining his innocence, Wright decided to take matters into his own hands while incarcerated in a maximum security facility. Over the next seven and a half years, he educated himself on New Jersey law and built his own legal defence. As word got around the prison, Wright began working as a paralegal on more than 20 fellow inmates' cases, fighting back against the unfairness of the criminal justice system from the inside.

Wright successfully overturned his kingpin conviction and life sentence, but there were several other charges levelled against him. To be fully exonerated, he had to find a way to expose the crooked individuals, systematic misconduct and illegal courtroom deals that had condemned him.

A corrupt prosecutor and a massive cover-up

During an evidentiary hearing in 1996, Wright represented himself in court, cross-examining a veteran police detective named James Dugan, who confessed to framing him in a cover-up orchestrated by Nicholas Bissell, the chief prosecutor in Wright's case.

Dugan said Bissell ordered officers to falsify police reports and witness testimonies. To secure a guilty outcome, the prosecutor also allegedly made secret deals with defence attorneys to have their clients lie under oath. Bissell was motivated by his desire to become the first prosecutor in the state of New Jersey to convict someone under the then-new drug kingpin law.

As a result of Dugan's testimony, Bissell was tried and found guilty on 30 counts, including obstruction of justice, perjury and abuse of power. He was then put under house arrest until his sentencing trial, but two days before it was set to happen, he cut off his electronic ankle monitor and went on the run as a fugitive. Police found Bissell holed up in a Nevada hotel room where he died by suicide shortly thereafter. 

In the wake of these revelations, Wright was released on a bail of $250,000, a sum raised by his supporters and friends. He then set his sights on becoming a practicing lawyer.

Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Nicholas Pinnock and Isaac Wright Jr. attend the New York Premiere of ABC's For Life at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center on Feb. 5, 2020. (Getty Images)

A chance encounter between Wright and 50 Cent

Though he only had a high school diploma at the time of his release, Wright continued to pursue his education and was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 2017 (he was delayed for nearly a decade due to an ongoing investigation from the bar's Committee on Character, which determines the fitness of each candidate to practise law in New Jersey).

As a full-fledged lawyer, Wright was contacted by the owner of an illegal fight club in the Bronx who was looking to legitimize his business. The fight club owner had a connection with 50 Cent whom he wanted to take the stage between fights, but the rapper refused until the club became licensed, which is exactly what Wright accomplished.

"The guy running the fight club came to me and said, 'If we can get 50 to come to the fights, it will really blow us up," Wright told New York Daily News. "But he has a promoter's licence and he won't come because we're illegal. Can you help us get a licence?"

It was this chance meeting that led 50 Cent to take an interest in Wright's story and immediately buy the rights for his latest series, For Life.

Actor Nicholas Pinnock in conversation with host Tom Power in the q studio in Toronto. (Vivian Rashotte/CBC)

A profound portrayal by actor Nicholas Pinnock

Today, Wright says watching a fictionalized version of his own story unfold on the screen has been therapeutic for him. The character that's inspired by him in For Life is named Aaron Wallace, who's portrayed by British actor Nicholas Pinnock.

"Watching [Pinnock] was like watching myself as a third person," Wright said alongside the actor on the radio show Sway in the Morning. "Watching my suffering, watching my pain — [it was] something that I had never had an opportunity to do before that."

In his interview with q, Pinnock shared the sentiment and talked about how profound it was to play a character based on Wright. "That's the biggest compliment that I could be given … that it was therapeutic for him. If that's how he feels about the performance, there are so many other people that I hope it will do that for as well in some small kind of a way. It's a massive compliment."

Download our podcast or click the 'Listen' link near the top of this page to hear the full interview with actor Nicholas Pinnock on Isaac Wright Jr. and For Life.

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview with Nicholas Pinnock produced by Jennifer Warren.