She found time to work on her associate’s degree, sing in a choir and teach illiterate inmates how to read.
All this while she was behind bars, serving 25 years to life in the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla after being found guilty of first-degree murder in Los Angeles in 1983.
She was still in prison two decades later when a couple of land-use lawyers from Walnut Creek took on her case — pro bono — and set out to prove that not only was Peagler forced into prostitution and brutally abused by the man who pimped for her, but that she was wrongfully incarcerated for his death.
Berkeley filmmaker Yoav Potash captures Peagler’s story — largely as her case unfolded over its final five years — in his documentary “Crime After Crime.” The film premieres at 6 p.m. Sunday at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival.
“The title is obviously sort of a play on phrases like ‘time after time,’” Potash says. “But the thing that makes the story unique — the crime after the crime — is a reference to all the misconduct of how her case was mishandled and keeping her in prison all these years. It’s that second wave of crime that’s far more nefarious and upsetting.”
Peagler’s story began in 1975 when she was 15 years old and introduced to a young man, Oliver Wilson, who quickly won her affection.
But he soon forced her into prostitution, and what followed was more than five years of abuse and fear for Peagler and threats to her mother and sisters. Finally, two men from a neighborhood gang promised they would make sure Wilson never bothered her again, Peagler says in the film.
While it is unclear what happened the night Wilson was killed, Peagler was charged with first-degree murder and threatened with the death penalty. She entered a guilty plea to lessen her punishment to a life sentence.
“Crime After Crime” picks up Peagler’s story shortly after attorneys Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran volunteered to take her case in 2002.
Earlier that year, California became the first — and only — state to pass a law (Penal Code §1473.5) helping incarcerated survivors of domestic violence win their freedom if they could provide evidence of the abuse that had led to their crime.
Through this law, organizations committed to helping such survivors came together and formed the California Habeas Project. They identified about 20 victims in their initial run and approached law firms throughout the state to take on these cases.
Costa, a lawyer at Bingham McCutchen, had seen a flier about how to get involved in assisting victims of domestic violence.
“Some of these cases seemed so clear in justifying a new trial, so I raised my hand sheepishly and said I’d take on a new client,” she says. “As soon as I went and visited Debbie, she’s such a powerful figure that we were really drawn into her story — not just because of her abuse — but her ability to cope and persevere under the most severe circumstances.”
Costa enlisted the help of Safran, another attorney at the firm, and they quickly realized the case would be complicated.
“We couldn’t control a lot of what was happening, but it was critical we believed her and validated her sense of self-worth,” Costa says. “We couldn’t promise we’d walk her out of the gate, but we did promise we’d be with her every step of the way.”
Safran and Costa discovered an important thread with Peagler — and with each other: perseverance fueled by their own experiences with domestic violence. “Once we were in, we were in,” Safran says about his and Costa’s determination, despite the long hours spent in addition to their full-time jobs.
“It was setting precedent, and it was true at every stage, that we were on the verge of getting her out.”
Peagler had already been denied parole twice when they took her case, and what ensued was a lengthy battle with the Los Angeles district attorney’s office and the state. One of the biggest weaknesses they identified early on was the lack of evidence of abuse. In an attempt to start documenting more of Peagler’s story and to bring more awareness to her case, Safran approached his longtime friend, Potash.
“I had some initial ambivalence but said, ‘If you can get me into this maximum security prison, then maybe,’” Potash says with a laugh.
“I think it was difficult for Deborah Peagler to remember the abuse she had suffered. Then along came these lawyers who offered her freedom, and she had to recall all the details of the worst time in her life.” Potash says. “Then she has to repeat those details in front of a camera, and come to terms with the fact that people are going to see her footage.”
Peagler’story takes an unexpected twist that we won’t reveal here,
While the film may be complete, efforts to continue raising awareness for Peagler and thousands of other women like her are not.
“Right now the main thing I’m working on is what we’re calling Debbie’s Campaign — the outreach and using this film as a platform to create social change,” Potash says. “I want bar associations, law enforcement agencies, as well as the general public, to know they can make change so Deborah’s story doesn’t keep repeating itself.”