Crime After Crime: The Battle to Free Debbie Peagler
Debbie Peagler, Nadia Costa, Joshua Safran
(Life Sentence Films)
US theatrical: 1 Jul 2011 (Limited release)
When Debbie Peagler learned her boyfriend meant to pimp her, she was shocked. When she met Oliver Wilson, she was just 15 years old. Her mother met him at the ABC Market, where he was working, and was so charmed that she brought him home to meet Debbie and her young daughter Tikisha. “He bought me toys,” Tikisha remembers now, “Anything that a little kid could wish for.”
“It never dawned on me that he was making this money at ABC Market,” Debbie says now, and it didn’t occur to her that when he offered to take her “somewhere special,” he meant she’d be turning her first trick. “I’m like, freaking out,” she says now, “I’m not gonna have sex with that man, I don’t know that man.” The pair of prostitutes who were supposed to instruct her urged Debbie to go along, otherwise, “Your pimp’s gonna beat you.” She didn’t believe that either, Debbie says. “Oliver would never do that.”
Of course, he would. “He hauled off and slapped the crap out of me,” she says. And it wasn’t long before Oliver was beating her regularly, with a bullwhip, though he never hit her in the face. Debbie’s story is too familiar, the cycle too well known: her mother was battered, she was battered, and Oliver watched his father batter his own mother. But even if there are “thousands and thousands of Debbies across the United States,” as one lawyer puts it in Crime After Crime: The Battle to Free Debbie Peagler, her story is also extraordinary.
In 1983, Debbie was convicted of killing Oliver. She didn’t do it herself, but she led Oliver to the place where two Crips gang members—neighbors who felt Oliver had stepped over a line when he “used to beat on [Debbie] like she was a guy”—beat and strangled him to death.
At the time, the law didn’t allow Debbie to submit evidence of her longtime abuse during her trial. Instead, the Los Angeles DA was pressed to make a deal, to plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter in exchange for her life. She was imprisoned at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California, for 20 years. In 2002, the state passed a law giving battered women in prison the chance for a new hearing if the original court hadn’t considered evidence of the abuse. Lawyers Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran took her case, pro bono. “We do land use real estate development law,” says Safran. They had no idea how long their work on Peagler’s case would last (over seven years), or where it would take them.
For one thing, it made them aware of the frankly incredible corruption of the district attorney’s office. To start, in 1983, that office made a bad deal with Peagler, promising her the lesser charge and then sentencing her illegally (the most she should have received for second-degree manslaughter was six years, not 25 to life). In addition, the laws in 1983 didn’t consider the situations of battered women, or even name them as such. It was only the “beginning of having restraining orders,” observes Nancy Lemon of the UC Berkeley Domestic Violence Law Clinic.
As the film notes, Costa and Safran discovered as well that in the years that followed, particularly after 2000, when Steve Cooley was elected Los Angeles County DA, the office undertook to cover up what it had done. This much is revealed by the work of private investigator Bobby Buechler, hired by Costa and Safran when it becomes clear that the original case against Peagler, which argued she had Oliver killed for insurance money, was bogus—and that the DA knew it at the time, not disclosing pertinent evidence as to a witness’ perjury and Wilson’s abuse of Peagler’s daughter. In uncovering one error or lie after another, the film frequently takes the form of a detective story, uncovering crimes committed against Debbie, after her own initial crime.
Crime After Crime also tells another story, concerning Costa and Safran’s innovative legal strategies. Safran provides illustration of their thinking, drawing stick figures on a whiteboard, connecting them by red and green arrows, and indicating which avenues are shut down, as they endeavor to move Debbie from a sad-face in prison to a happy-face in a panel showing grass and sunshine and “freedom.” And indeed, the film’s most persistent, understated question concerns “freedom”—what can it mean and who determines that definition? Again and again, it’s apparent that someone like Debbie Peagler, specifically, a poor, undereducated, black woman, has precious little access to the legal and social mechanisms of freedom.
From the start of her ordeal, Debbie’s limited options are clear. Not only does her experience repeat her mother’s, but also she has no apparent recourse to change it. Debbie’s sister Angela remembers their efforts as a family to have Oliver arrested, and the police department’s lack of response. The one time he was arrested, for coning to the house with two armed associates, he was released from jail the next morning. “It was like, another black woman getting her ass whupped by her boyfriend, so be it,” says Angela. “You know, it was almost like it was a waste of their time.” And when she was arrested herself, following Oliver’s murder, Debbie received no counseling, no advice, only punishment.
Moreover, both Costa and Safran acknowledge their own experience with abuse: Safran says that his mother being attacked by a boyfriend inspired him to help others in similar situations, and Costa doesn’t offer details, but indicates that her own ability to escape that cycle, unlike Debbie, is a function of other factors, primarily class and race.
These stories don’t precisely advance Debbie’s, but they do indicate the film’s effort to contextualize it. While Crime After Crime‘s own storytelling can be awkward (the music soundtrack, heavy on sad piano and strings), it underlines repeatedly disparities in the so-called justice system. Specifically, it asserts the importance of exposure, including the use of television and newspaper stories to display Debbie’s case, sending Yoav Potash’s footage to TV outlets. When filming is not legally an option—say, the prison doesn’t allow Potash “does not allow the media to film the stories of specific prisoners”—the team comes up with a workaround, as Patash is officially on a job for PBS, making a documentary called “Life on the Inside,” about “prisoners who have rehabilitated themselves.” If they happen to observe Debbie (who leads the prison choir and has earned two associate’s degrees), well, that’s incidental.
These and other images are part of a concerted campaign to make Debbie’s case visible outside CCWF. It’s a compelling case, certainly, but Crime After Crime insists that it is not unusual. The film closes with this note, that over 80% of the 120,000 women incarcerated in the United States are “survivors of domestic violence, rape, and other forms of abuse.” And California remains the only state with a law permitting those survivors to file writs of habeas corpus to demonstrate how such abuse and its effects led to their crimes.