Annual Meeting

Tears Flow at Screening of Film on Pro Bono Fight to Free Woman Convicted of Her Abuser's Murder

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CLE programs don’t often cause seasoned lawyers to cry, but many of the two dozen attending Thursday afternoon’s showing of the documentary Crime After Crime openly shed tears.

The 90-minute film tells the story of California prison inmate Deborah Peagler, her two pro bono lawyers, and their decade-long effort to have an injustice reversed.

Peagler was convicted in 1983 of first-degree murder in the death of her boyfriend. Facing the threat of the death penalty, the mother of two pleaded guilty and accepted a sentence of 25 years to life.

Two decades into her prison term, two lawyers who specialized in land use law, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, agreed to take on her case. They expected the matter to take a few months to resolve. Instead, it consumed more than eight years and changed their lives.

The program was sponsored by the ABA’s State and Local Government Section and was conducted at DePaul University College of Law.

The documentary, produced and directed by filmmaker and self-proclaimed social justice advocate Yoav Potash, follows Costa and Safran as they obtain evidence that Peagler was horribly abused by her boyfriend for years. He had even beaten her with a bullwhip.

“He reached back and started beating the crap out of me,” Peagler said in film while wearing her orange California Department of Corrections uniform. “I rolled up in a ball and he kept kicking and hitting me. I begged him to stop beating me.”

When her boyfriend started abusing their daughter, Peagler and her mother convinced the leader of a local Los Angeles street gang to intervene. Peagler lured her boyfriend to a secluded spot, where the gang leaders strangled him to death.

“Even though I hated him and I wanted him to leave me alone, I didn’t want him killed,” she said.

As Peagler’s mother said in the documentary, “I didn’t want nobody to kill Oliver, but I did want them to beat the hell out of him.”

When prosecutors learned that Peagler had received $18,000 in life insurance money, they charged her with murder.

In 1983, evidence of spousal abuse was inadmissible in California. But in 2002, the state passed the first law in the country allowing victims of spousal abuse to go back to court in order to get their sentence reduced.

The documentary dramatically shows Safran and Costa in 2005 meeting with their client in prison with great news: The Los Angeles District Attorney had agreed to tell the court that Peagler’s crime should be reduced to voluntary manslaughter with a maximum sentence of six years. Peagler would most certainly be released immediately.

“Oh, praise the Lord,” Peagler responds, tears streaming down her face.

Just weeks later, the lawyers are back in prison on camera meeting with their client. Tears flowed again, but this time over the heartbreaking news that the DA had changed his mind and withdrawn his offer.

Three petitions to the Board of Parole Hearings failed. Multiple appeals went nowhere, despite testimony from her boyfriend’s mother and family that she had more than paid the price.

Then, in 2009, Peagler learned she had lung cancer. The documentary attributes it to her likely exposure to hazardous materials in prison. She was given months to live.

The film shows Peagler changing over time with age and legal defeats. She starts as a young woman who sings in the prison choir, learns how to do sign language, gets a college degree, and inspires other women inmates to go back to school and turn their life around. By the end, she is a 50-year-old prisoner with no hair after chemotherapy, barely able to display a smile and clearly lacking much spirit to fight on.

“I’m pleading, begging you for my mother’s freedom,” her daughter, Natasha, dramatically told the parole board members in a final effort to get Peagler released. “She’s given all she can give.”

Finally, in 2009, the Parole Board grants her release on humanitarian grounds. Corrections officials quietly and without warning took Peagler out the back of the prison and secretly took to her a Denny’s parking lot, where they released her to her parole officer, who took her to her family.

Ten months after Peagler’s release from prison, she died from cancer.

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