News & Politics

Man Beats His Girlfriend With a Bullwhip and Molests Her Children -- And She Gets Life in Prison After He Is Killed?

Speaking with Debbie Peagler's lawyers and documentarian about getting her out of prison for a second chance.

Oprah Winfrey has probably brought more attention to the issue of domestic violence than anyone in the country, so it’s no wonder her network has acquired Yoav Potash’s new documentary Crime After Crime. The story of Deborah Peagler—charismatic, kind, and ridiculously positive in the face of spending 26 years in prison for her role in killing her abuser—it is so filled with remarkable twists and turns along with outrageous moments that if this were a fiction film it would seem over the top.

Potash, who had previously made short documentaries about the nation’s largest women’s prison and racial profiling, heard about the case from his friend Joshua Safran, one of Peagler’s attorneys. After meeting Peagler, he was hooked.

“She was someone who had been through hell and yet was an inspiring uplifting person to be around,” Potash says. “I felt that if anyone could carry a story that would be as harrowing and difficult as one like this that deals with wrongful incarceration and domestic violence, it’s Deborah Peagler."

At 15, Peagler was charmed by Oliver Wilson, who became her boyfriend, forced her into prostitution, beat her with a bullwhip and molested her children. Although she tried to get away from him, he found her. When Peagler appealed to her mother for help, her mother told two friends, who confronted Wilson but ended up killing him. Peagler was arrested for her part in the killing—which entailed cooperating with the friends—and when she was told she could get the death penalty, she took life in prison. Peagler went to prison in1983, where she led the gospel choir, earned two college degrees and taught other inmates to read and write. In 2002, a law was enacted in California giving battered women in prison the chance for a new hearing. Just 20 cases, including Peagler’s, were selected, and it was her good fortune to get such tenacious pro bono lawyers as Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa, both land use attorneys who had no experience with criminal law. This lack of knowledge led to some dramatic moments.

“We couldn’t even get into prison for a while,” Safran says.“You have to meet your client and to meet your client you have to get into a maximum-security prison for women and how do you do that? We wore the wrong color clothing, and it was really a difficult process. At one point Nadia’s ultraviolet security handstamp rubbed off and they didn’t want to let her leave the prison.”

Making sure Peagler got to tell her story made them persist.

“The thing that compelled us to take this representation that was so far afield from what we were used to was the realization that there was no one else,” he says. “There are still women waiting for volunteer attorneys to take their cases. At that point you can’t fall back on the excuse, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing,’ because presumably some lawyer is better than no lawyer.”

Both Safran and Costa had personal experience with domestic violence. Costa, an ultra marathon runner who had been a social worker before becoming an attorney, points out that in some ways their lack of experience helped them.

“We didn’t understand the enormity of the job we were taking on,” she says. “We just took this common sense approach we need to go meet with people and get her out because once they hear the facts, they’ll do that.”

The attorneys found that wasn’t the case even after they found long lost witnesses, evidence of perjured testimony, and new testimony from the men who committed the murder. The level of prosecutorial misconduct they found appalled them.

“It was like, oh my God, we’re up against a corrupt sort of L.A. Confidential style system,” Safran said. “ The kind of thing you would expect in Kazakhstan or in L.A. in the '40s, but not in the '00s.” Attending Peagler’s first parole board hearing was when she realized that just uncovering the facts wouldn’t be enough, Costa says. The attorneys had gotten Oliver Wilson’s next of kin, his sister, to testify on Peagler’s behalf, which is permitted in the penal code, but they found out it wouldn’t be so easy.

“When the prison understood the next of kin was there to speak on behalf of the inmate, Joshua and I remember exactly what they said, they said, ‘I’m inclined not to let her in.’” Costa says. “And the bottom line which became very clear to us was they have the power to do that because they control the locks on those doors.”

Another thing that shocked the two was that after Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley made a written deal with them for Peagler’s immediate release after concluding that her sentence should have been for voluntary manslaughter (meaning two to six years in prison), he changed his mind. Costa and Safran submitted petitions and filed a suit against Cooley. Potash held screenings of the movie and released excerpts of the film to news agencies to bring attention to Peagler’s case.

“This project was very eye opening for me,” Potash said. “I’ve tried to create the film in a way that it’s going to be just as eye opening for audiences and trigger them to have some passion about making sure their tax dollars don’t continue to be spent this way- keeping people in prison for no good reason at all.”

Crime After Crime is in theaters now.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer and teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.