There are countless stories of Black people in America who have been wrongfully convicted and over-sentenced by the United States justice system. In the case of exoneration, second chances do exist and justice can prevail. ABC’s For Life draws inspiration from the real-life story of Isaac Wright Jr., a man who is among the people who has lived this hard truth. Wright was sentenced to a life sentence in prison and while serving his time, studied law in order to oversee his own appeal. While incarcerated, he also worked as a paralegal and helped win the freedom of other inmates who were also serving a life sentence. After proving his innocence, Wright dedicated himself to pursuing law and graduated with his undergraduate degree in 2002 and then again from law school in 2007.
The show, inspired by Wright’s life, chronicles the fight for freedom that protagonist Aaron Wallace (portrayed by Nicholas Pinnock) embarks on after being wrongfully convicted of a crime. You can tune in to watch the second episode of For Life’s season 2 on Wednesday, Nov. 25, and catch up this weekend On Demand and on Hulu.
Keeda Haynes is a formerly incarcerated woman who is fighting against the brutal reign of injustice as a politician and lawyer in Tennessee. Before pursuing her career in politics, Haynes was sentenced to seven years in prison under mandatory sentencing laws for a marijuana crime she says she did not commit. Thankfully, she was able to appeal her conviction after serving four years at Alderson Federal Prison Camp.
Since then, she received her law degree and has worked as a public defender. Haynes ran for Tennessee's 5th Congressional District seat for the 2020 primary election with the plan to fight against mandatory sentence laws and racial inequalities in the criminal system.
Haynes spoke with Blavity earlier this year about the hardships she underwent to get her law degree after being incarcerated. She also shared how mandatory sentences “served no purpose other than to decimate Black and brown low-income communities.”
She mentioned that the community should play a role in showing support and removing the stigma around formerly incarcerated people. She also believes there should be rehabilitation aid for those who have not committed nonviolent offenses and that people with cases tied to marijuana charges should be expunged.
"These are people that don't need to be locked up,” Haynes said. “We need to be going toward rehabilitation and what does that look like instead of going straight toward punishment.”
Kwame Ajamu is a Cleveland native who shared his story about how he, his brother Wiley Bridgeman, and their friend Ricky Jackson were wrongly convicted of the robbery and murder of a United States money order salesman. There was no forensic evidence that linked him to the crime, but based on false testimony from then 12-year-old Edward Vernon, Ajamu was sentenced to death in 1975 at age 17. Wright mentioned in the For Life podcast that the National Registry of Exonerations revealed that “perjury and false accusations account for 58 percent of wrongful convictions in the United States.”
Ajamu spoke vividly about the moments leading up to his indictment and his time spent in prison. He shared how losing his mother while incarcerated was the catalyst for his rebirth. His story is one of transformation. He spent 28 years in prison, finding refuge in education, and became enlightened, which ultimately changed his life and those around him. He earned degrees in cooking and typing, and he worked as an administrator in the prison’s school system.
“I had to learn the difference between being who I am and being what they wanted me to be,” Ajamu said on the podcast.
Thirteen years after his rebirth, he finally won back his freedom. He was given parole based on outstanding programming. Ajamu left prison at the age of 45, a new man with a new sense of self and a new name.
While free, Ajamu met his wife and could finally enjoy his life, but he was still determined to get his brother and friend out of jail. Additionally, though Ajamu was paroled, he wasn’t exonerated, so he wanted to clear his name along with his loved ones’. While battling the continuous trauma of his incarceration, Ajamu embarked on a journey with reporter Kyle Swenson to share his story with the world. The exposure caught the attention of The Ohio Innocence Project and eventually led Edward Vernon to recant his story. Wiley Bridgeman and Ricky Jackson were both granted new trials.
They were exonerated after 39 years in prison and Ajamu was exonerated the following month. His fight for justice transformed not only his life but his loved ones’ lives as well. Ajamu continues to make an impact all across the world through his involvement with organizations such as Ohioans To Stop Executions and Witness To Innocence, which is the “only organization of its kind on the planet” according to Ajamu, who is now the chairman of the organization. The board consists of all death row exonerees, and they travel the world fighting against capital punishment, mass incarceration, and human trafficking.
Antoine Day’s story is one of family resilience and healing. In 1990, the musician and 28-year-old father of five had just returned home from a gig in New Orleans when he found out that the local police were looking to question him about a recent robbery-homicide in his neighborhood.
Day had no idea that his life would be stolen when he went to the police station to clear his name. He was accused of fitting the description of the person responsible for the homicide and eventually tried alongside the actual shooter in court, despite them fitting two different descriptions. Several alibi witnesses and eyewitnesses could’ve cleared his name at his bench trial, but none of them were called to testify. Through it all, his family, neighbors, and bandmates supported him, but sadly, in November 1992, he was found guilty of first-degree murder, attempted murder, and other charges. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
“I felt nothing,” Day said, speaking about the moment on the podcast. “It actually killed me. It took the life out of my body. I felt so violated. I was at my weakest moment when they did this to me. It was devastating.”
The conviction broke him and his family. According to a study commissioned by the Children’s Bureau, over seven million children in the United States have a parent who is or has been incarcerated.
Day’s years in jail took a toll on him, but thankfully his family sustained him and kept him focused through his wrongful incarceration. Five years into his sentence, his sister connected him with a retired attorney, Howard Joseph, who helped him eventually get out of prison.
While fighting his case, Day dealt with the death of his son, who was kidnapped and murdered. The loss hit him extremely hard, so he decided to turn back to music and formed a band inside the prison to cope with the pain.
In October 2001, the appellate court overturned Day’s conviction and granted him a new trial based on the inadequate legal defense he received at his bench trial. A year later, the prosecution dropped all of his charges and Day was finally a free man after 10 years in jail. He was officially exonerated and received a certificate of innocence almost 10 years after he was released.
In 2010, he became the founding member of the Exoneree Band. The group is made up of wrongfully incarcerated and exonerated musicians. Day and his bandmates travel all over the world performing music from all genres including country, rock, and jazz.
Day is also using his advocacy efforts to make a change in other people’s lives with his organization, Life After Justice, which he co-founded with another exoneree. Life After Justice helps formerly incarcerated people transition from life after prison.
He and his family are still working on the hard journey of healing through love, patience, and awareness. Despite the hardships, his love for music and his exoneree family is helping him through the process.
These real-life experiences only further highlight the much-needed reformation and accountability within our justice system. Their strength and determination to regain their freedom is inspiration beyond measure and is truly brought to life in Aaron Wallace's journey. Tune in to watch the second episode of For Life’s season 2 on Wednesday, Nov. 25, preview below, and catch up this weekend On Demand and on Hulu.
This editorial is brought to you in partnership with ABC