Watch This Show The story of a wrongfully convicted man who became a lawyer in prison
ABC's new show, For Life (premiering Tuesday), isn't your average legal drama. The attorney at the heart of the show, Aaron Wallace (played by Nicholas Pinnock) is incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit, and is serving a life sentence of his own while trying to help his fellow prisoners earn their freedom. The show which, counts Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as an executive producer, is a fictionalized series, but it’s also inspired by the life of a real man. Isaac Wright Jr. was railroaded by a corrupt prosecutor, and really did go from being a prisoner with a life sentence to being a lawyer. Here’s what you need to know.
In 1989, Wright was charged with leading a cocaine trafficking ring. “I’d never been through the system before,” he said, and the charges upended his life. Prior to his arrest, he’d been an entrepreneur, and Wright told Esquire that he’d co-created the girl group Cover Girls, which featured his wife Sunshine and scored some dance-pop hits in the ‘80s. “Everything was really, really, really good,” says Wright. “And sometime after it started going really well for us, we decided to move to New Jersey.”
But late 1980s New Jersey was home to a chief county prosecutor named Nicholas Bissell, who promoted himself as a lawman tackling drug dealers at the height of the crack epidemic while acting much like a crime lord himself. Later, he would be accused of trying to frame a judge who angered him with a charge for drunk driving, and skimming thousands of dollars from businesses in which he was invested. The president of a gasoline distributor that Bissel co-owned accused the prosecutor of threatening to plant cocaine in his car.
“This wasn't just a rogue cop. This was the chief law enforcement officer threatening to plant cocaine,” said Wright. “So there was just this air of criminality going on in the prosecutor's office before I even moved to New Jersey. And then I ultimately got snared up in that.”
Wright never had faith during his trial that the truth would out and the system would work to clear his name. “I knew early on that I was going to prison for the rest of my life and that there was nothing that no one was going to be able to do to help me,” he said. “Even 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.”
And though he had only a high school diploma, Wright said that he initially represented himself at trial, a move he admits was “insane.”
“I wasn't going to pay somebody to send me to prison,” he said.”I might as well strap up the boots and put on the gloves and get into the fight myself.”
After his 1991 conviction, Wright said that he was sent to the maximum security New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, where he began working as a paralegal on other prisoners’ cases. “I got over 20 people out of prison, some with life sentences and others based on getting their sentences reduced,” said Wright. Despite the fact that he was facing life with the possibility of parole only after 30 years, he felt that he could fight back against the unfairness of the criminal justice system by advocating for others.
“The act of representing these 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,” said Wright. “And so all of those victories, they represented something really, really, really important to me.”
Listen the story on Esquire
Watch This Too My impact will be liberation
Ana Urgiles is law student at Berkeley Law and a ChangeLawyers℠Scholar.
More of This This lawyer wants to make Hollywood more inclusive
No, Kalpana Kotagal didn’t make it through the Oscars. Again.
Like any other exhausted mom chasing around two little boys, she crashed about the time editing and sound awards were being handed out Sunday night.
Even though, on that glamorous stage 3,000 miles away, some of her life’s work would be up for discussion.
This happened two years ago, when Frances McDormand said two words that sent Google ablaze — and upended Kotagal’s life — during her Oscar acceptance speech: inclusion rider.
It’s a way to legally guarantee that a film production crew — from off-leads and extras to grippers and makeup artists — reflects the diversity of America.
Kotagal is the D.C. attorney who helped write the rider. And she slept through all that and woke up that Monday morning to a bazillion messages — including one from me — asking her about it.
I caught up with her two years later, after McDormand’s two words rocked Hollywood, to see how much has changed. And to ask the question — could a civil rights and employment attorney in D.C. change Hollywood with a very D.C. solution?
A little has changed. But mostly, it hasn’t.
“Just Mercy” — a legal drama about an attorney working to free a wrongfully convicted man on death row — the highest-profile film to be created using Kotagal’s legal framework, was snubbed in the best picture category.
The female directors — whose names were embroidered on a Dior cape worn by Natalie Portman to the awards — were also snubbed.
But what about “Parasite”?
The South Korean film made history by becoming the first foreign-language movie to win best picture and three other Oscars. That’s some diversity in the films the academy would consider, yes.
But there was still little representation in the categories for black or female stories.
Read the story on Washington Post
Say It Louder The suburbs aren’t afraid of electing progressive prosecutors
The Willie Horton ad that successfully tanked Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign worked because it played on “every suburban mother’s greatest fear,” according to its creator. The infamous ad handed politicians a reliable strategy for winning in swingable suburbs: manipulate fear of violent crime.
For decades, the suburbs have existed in the American political imagination as a centrist bulwark, where voters concerned above all with property values and schools shy away from systemic reform. But these voters are proving that the caricature of small-minded, cautious suburbanites could be out of date, especially when it comes to criminal justice and crime. In 2019, progressive prosecutors swept Democratic primary and general elections in the prosperous suburbs of northern Virginia: Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties as well as the city of Arlington. Amid a blue wave in the state, promises to reduce cash bail, stop seeking the death penalty, and decriminalize marijuana possession won easily. The prosecutors’ elections in northern Virginia represent the most significant electoral victory for the reform prosecutor movement outside of big cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, or New York.
“I really do think the next frontier of criminal justice reform runs through the suburbs,” said Steve Descano, newly inaugurated commonwealth’s attorney for Fairfax County, who hopes his success serves as a model to suburbs around the country: “The response reformers get is, ‘Oh, well, X county isn’t like New York or Chicago.’ I want them to be able to say, ‘Well, we are like Fairfax County, and look what they did.’ "
Read the story on Slate
In Memory She was the first openly gay federal judge
Deborah A. Batts, the first openly gay judge to sit on the federal bench, who presided over prominent cases involving political corruption, terrorism and the Central Park Five civil case, died on Monday at her home in Manhattan. She was 72.
Her wife, Dr. Gwen Zornberg, said she died unexpectedly of complications after knee replacement surgery.
Judge Batts served for a quarter-century on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. After her nomination in 1994 by President Bill Clinton, it took 17 years before a second openly gay judge, J. Paul Oetken, was appointed to the federal bench.
She was also the first African-American faculty member at Fordham Law School, where she continued to teach even after she became a judge.
Judge Batts was a federal prosecutor in New York in the 1980s and early ’90s, when Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat, suggested that she fill out an application to become a federal judge.
Her application languished through the presidency of George H.W. Bush. The administration thought that while she was “very nice,” she said in 2011, “my view of what a federal judge should be” was not their view.
After Mr. Clinton nominated her, however, she sailed onto the bench. The American Bar Association rated her “unanimously qualified.” Her sexual orientation, about which she was open, was not an issue, and the Senate confirmed her on a voice vote. She was sworn in on June 23, 1994, during Gay Pride Week.
“It was like hiring Jackie Robinson, putting him on the field and no one saying anything about it,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals told the American Bar Association Journal in 1994.
Read the story on NY Times
Less of This How Trump wrecked America’s immigration courts
Lee O’Connor has been in his courtroom for all of two minutes before a look of annoyance washes over his face.
Eleven children and six adults—all of them from Central America, all of them in court for the first time—sit on the wooden benches before him. They’ve been awake since well before dawn so they could line up at the US-Mexico border to board government buses headed to immigration court in downtown San Diego, Kevlar-vested federal agents in tow. Like the dozens of families jam-packed into the lobby and the six other courtrooms, they’ve been waiting out their asylum cases in Mexico, often for months, as part of the Trump administration’s controversial border policy, the Migrant Protection Protocols.
O’Connor has a docket full of MPP cases today, like every day. Before he gets to them, though, he quickly postpones a non-MPP case to January 2021, explaining to a man and his attorney that he simply doesn’t have time for them today, motioning to the families in the gallery. While he’s doing this, the little girl in front of me keeps asking her mom if she can put on the headphones that play a Spanish translation of the proceedings. A guard motions the little girl to be quiet.
For months, immigration attorneys and judges have been complaining that there’s no fair way to hear the cases of the tens of thousands of Central Americans who have been forced to remain on the Mexican side of the border while their claims inch through the courts. MPP has further overwhelmed dockets across the country and pushed aside cases that already were up against a crippling backlog that’s a million cases deep, stranding immigration judges in a bureaucratic morass and families with little hope for closure anytime in the near future.
I went last month to San Diego—home to one of the busiest MPP courts, thanks to its proximity to Tijuana and the more than 20,000 asylum seekers who now live in shelters and tent cities there—expecting to see logistical chaos. But I was still surprised at how fed up immigration judges like O’Connor were by the MPP-driven speedup—and by the extent to which their hands were tied to do anything about it.
Read the story on Mother Jones