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Real 'For Life' lawyer fights for justice as part of the system

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Real 'For Life' lawyer fights for justice as part of the system
Nicholas Pinnock plays a fictionalized version of attorney Isaac Wright Jr. in the new series "For Life." Photo courtesy of ABC

NEW YORK, Feb. 11 (UPI) -- Isaac Wright Jr. -- who became a lawyer after he was wrongly convicted of drug trafficking, imprisoned and then exonerated -- has dedicated his life to helping people navigate the twists and turns of the U.S. criminal justice system.

"When I was freed, I left thousands behind and there was nobody there to help them, and I understood what they were going through because I went through the same thing," Wright Jr. recently told UPI.

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"I made a decision that that was going to be my life's work. It didn't matter whether I had a penny or whether I had a billion dollars. There was nothing that was going to keep me out of a courtroom, and there was nothing that was going to keep me from helping others."

For Life, a drama inspired by his experiences, is set to debut on ABC on Tuesday.

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Produced by Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, the show stars Nicholas Pinnock as Aaron Wallace, a fictionalized version of Wright Jr.

The ensemble also includes Joy Bryant as Aaron's conflicted wife Marie and Indira Varma as Safiya, a prison warden who supports Wallace's efforts to become an attorney and appeal his life sentence, while he also advises and defends fellow inmates who were overcharged or falsely accused.

"The spirit and logic of the show is spot on," said Wright Jr., who worked as a paralegal when he was in prison and earned his law degree when he was freed.

"It tells a story of hope and inspiration, resilience, tenacity, brilliance and, most of all, that sometimes, when all looks lost and you are struggling and you are running around in all directions looking for an answer, you have to go to the mirror because the answer to your problem is within yourself."

His love for his family and determination to get home to them kept him going through his darkest days.

"If I was a person that was alone, it may have wound up differently, but I had a wife and I had a little girl and there is nothing stronger than the need to be there to protect your family," Wright Jr. said, noting it is this aspect of For Life that likely will be "a common denominator" for viewers.

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"I think everybody, whether they are in prison or not, whether they have family members who are in prison or not, are going to be able to relate."

Despite spending much of the 1990s in prison for a crime he didn't commit, Wright Jr. still believes in justice.

"It could be slow, but when it comes, it comes surely. For me, patience is a virtue and the result is much more important than the road. As long as it comes, I can wait for it," he said. "I'm a part of the system now and I am helping people within that system and, so, it would be hypocrisy to be part of a system that I don't believe in."

He said the criminal justice system itself is not the problem.

"It is the people who are running the system that's the problem, and if you deal with that aspect of the system, you will eventually get the system to work for you," he said.

Jackson and series creator Hank Steinberg turned out to be the ideal partners to bring his story to the screen.

"It was a huge, huge leap of faith," Wright Jr. said, emphasizing that his trust of the creative team ultimately was justified. "There are beautiful people around me. They are honest, they have a lot of integrity and they've done right by me."

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Parenthood and Ballers alum Bryant said For Life still would be riveting if it were completely made up, but because is based on an extraordinary true story makes it even more impactful.

"You can't control who's going to get what from what and how, but what we created is a show that will entertain people and also possibly give them something to think about. There are many things that we cover here and there's something for everyone to really connect to," Bryant told UPI in a joint interview with Pinnock, known for his roles in Criminal: U.K. and Marcella.

"The writers did a fantastic job in offering us three very different worlds that are connected by this one thread of Aaron Wallace.

"There is a prison drama, which has a darker, more intense feel to it," Pinnock said.

"Then you have the family drama side of things where he is separated from them and they are dealing with also being imprisoned in some ways," he said. "Away from Aaron, that has its own complexities and its own sense of story.

"Then you have the legal drama where he's in the courtroom. They did a great job of making sure no story fell short of equal attention."

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Infused with hope, the show also conveys how risky it is for the characters to let that feeling bubble up in them since setbacks and sabotage always seem to be right around the corner.

"You can feel the frustration in the writing," Pinnock said, admitting these emotions are thrilling to play as an actor.

"There were some scenes in the waiting room, in the courtroom between Aaron and Marie -- these looks and these yearnings and these disappointing moments where they just wanted to hug or be together or be free and go home together and they couldn't do it.

"If we were so compelled, moved and driven by it, we only hope that what we did to translate that to the audience would mean exactly the same to them."

One character who never gives up on the dream that Wallace will win his freedom is his teen daughter, Jasmine, played by Tyla Harris.

"Jasmine's hope in her father and his quest never wavers," Bryant said.

"Not that Marie doesn't believe him, but her hope wavers a lot because she is taking a much more realistic approach," she said, explaining that Marie initially doubts that her incarcerated husband can become a lawyer and then is convinced he can do it.

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"There comes a point in the series where she is certain," Bryant said. "She gets it. She needed more evidence, whereas Jasmine didn't need any evidence. She just wanted her daddy home."

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