Not a woman of constant sorrow
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, July 15, 2011
Some movies prove so eye-opening that a viewer may feel the urge to recount the story, start to finish, to friends and acquaintances. “Crime After Crime” is that kind of film. The shocking, emotional documentary follows an abused, incarcerated woman whose quest for freedom meets a never-ending series of outlandish obstacles.
Deborah Peagler was 15 when she started dating Oliver Wilson, a man with a magnetic personality and good looks to match. He also had a dark side: Wilson was a pimp, and for years he forced Peagler to prostitute herself, all while routinely beating her and molesting her daughter. After an incident in which Wilson threatened his girlfriend and her family with a shotgun, Peagler finally called the police, who arrested and promptly released Wilson. At the urging of her mother, the young woman sought out the neighborhood’s arbiters of “ghetto law,” a couple of Crips gang members. She asked them to make Wilson leave her alone, and they did: They killed him.
Peagler pleaded guilty to first-degree murder after prosecutors threatened her with the death penalty and she began serving 25 years to life.
Yoav Potash’s no-frills documentary picks up in Peagler’s 20th year behind bars, offering glimpses of her life in prison, which includes singing in a gospel choir and mentoring fellow inmates. As the film begins, a new California law seems as if it could be Peagler’s salvation: If an incarcerated person can provide evidence of battery or domestic violence, the case might be reopened.
Enter Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, lawyers who take on Peagler’s case pro bono. They make frequent trips to visit their client, accompanied by Potash, who is ostensibly shooting interview footage that could help Peagler’s case. But what they think will be a few months of work becomes a multiyear battle with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.
The camera follows as the lawyers, with the help of a private investigator, uncover increasingly astonishing facts. Suffice it to say, the prosecutors didn’t have a case against Peagler. What’s more, the district attorney’s office seems hellbent on keeping Peagler behind bars, despite new evidence.
The ragtag team of unlikely allies on this odyssey provides the film with a cast of affable characters. Safran is a quick-witted but slightly rumpled Orthodox Jew, while Costa is a well-spoken ultramarathoner, and both have firsthand experience with abuse. Interviews with Peagler reveal that the woman is almost irrepressibly upbeat despite constant setbacks, which makes the few times she breaks down all the more affecting. In one of the many tear-jerking moments, Peagler talks to the camera, her gratitude toward her attorneys coming out amid weeping: “They don’t have to do it. They don’t get a dime.”
To Peagler, it seems illogical that anyone would work so hard for nothing. The only thing more irrational might be why so many powerful people worked so hard to keep her behind bars.