MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, we return to our Economist Film Project series with a film called “Crime After Crime.”
It documents the dramatic legal battle to free Deborah Peagler, a woman imprisoned for more than two decades for the murder of her abusive boyfriend. She finds hope for freedom when two attorneys step forward to take her case on a pro bono basis.
The director is Yoav Potash.
Here is an excerpt.
DEBORAH PEAGLER, convicted murderer: Hi!
My name is Deborah Peagler. And I was convicted of first-degree murder, sentenced to 25 years to life.
JOSHUA SAFRAN, attorney for Deborah Peagler: Nadia Costa and I began representing Deborah Peagler shortly after California became the first state in the nation to adopt a law specifically designed to help incarcerated survivors of domestic violence win their freedom.
It’s a huge problem, a national problem, probably an international problem. And this law is just the first step. Debbie was connected to the murder of the man that abused her, but the evidence of that abuse was never presented to the court. And if she had been charged appropriately, she would have served a maximum of six years in prison.
Instead, by the time we took her case, she had already been in for 20 years, and been denied release by the parole board twice.
NADIA COSTA, attorney for Deborah Peagler: This isn’t a case where Debbie Peagler didn’t have anything to do with the crime. But when you look at all of the facts and circumstances surrounding what occurred, any reasonable court, any reasonable parole board, and any reasonable person would conclude that she has served enough time and she should be released from prison.
DEBORAH PEAGLER: He had gotten to the point where he would stop hitting me with his fists. He would make me lay down on the floor, lay down on the couch or whatever and beat me with a bullwhip.
And so I would have whips on my body. He would never, never hit me on my face, didn’t want to mess up the face, so I could be the perfect hostess for his friends, so I could easily wear long sleeves or whatever to cover the bruises.
JOSHUA SAFRAN: Debbie tried to escape Oliver on numerous occasions, but he kept bringing her back by force or by death threats.
NADIA COSTA: Debbie’s mother suggested to Debbie that she let Ramone Sibley and “Little Timmy” (ph) Lively make Oliver leave her alone.
JOSHUA SAFRAN: Sibley and Lively were Crips gang members that controlled the area where Debbie’s mom lived. It was their turf.
And when Oliver showed up with a group of armed guys threatening to kill everyone in their neighborhood, that was the last straw. That wasn’t going to happen on their watch.
RAMONE SIBLEY, co-defendant of Deborah Peagler: The extremes I used to see him go to, grabbing her, choking her, socking her, he used to beat on her like she was a guy, you know? So, two or three times, I had to beat on him like he was a guy, you know, and just, one, to try to protect her and, two, to show the dude that this is what you are doing to her.
DEBORAH PEAGLER: It was like, you guys going to make him leave me alone? Can you just make him leave me alone?
They was like, yes, let us handle it. We will take care of it. We will take care of it.
JOSHUA SAFRAN: After Oliver Wilson was killed, Debbie did receive about $17,000 in life insurance proceeds, most of which went to Oliver’s mother and to pay for a very elaborate funeral for Oliver. And the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office took this evidence of life insurance as proof that Debbie had Oliver killed for financial gain.
DEBORAH PEAGLER: I sit in prison wondering, was there a better way, was there a different way? Like, today, I know there is. There’s shelters and people out there available now. Where were those people at then?
NANCY LEMON, University of California, Berkeley: In 1983, when Debbie Peagler went to prison, the battered women’s movement was still in its infancy. There were just starting to be battered women’s shelters. It was the very beginning of having restraining orders.
JEFF BLEICH, attorney: Over time, with committed activists, they started bringing victims out of the shadows to share their stories. And police became educated. And the general public became educated about this issue.
DEBORAH PEAGLER: Five years passed, 10 years passed. People started talking about battered women’s syndrome. They even started a domestic violence program at the prison and group therapy.
WOMAN: They were always talking about the victim that died in our case, but we’re a victim, too.
WOMAN: He beat me until I was black and blue. And this was the only way I could ever get away from him.
MARISA GONZALEZ, California Habeas Project: When Debbie Peagler was sent to prison, the number of incarcerated women nationwide was less than 20,000. In the years since, that number has just plain skyrocketed, so that today there has been a more than six-fold increase in the number of women in prison in less than 30 years.
Many of these women, especially those who were serving life sentences like Debbie, are incarcerated for a crime that is directly related to that abuse. After decades of advocacy, battered women in prison and their supporters on the outside were finally successful in getting this habeas law passed in California, the first law in the nation that allows domestic violence survivors to present their evidence and finally have a real chance at winning their freedom.
CAROLYN RUSSELL, domestic violence expert: I think it’s astounding that California is the only state that is actually allowing cases to be reopened, because there are thousands and thousands of Debbies across the United States.
MARISA GONZALEZ: Even in California, the state is not providing these women with attorneys. And so the Habeas Project formed to connect women with attorneys who could take on these cases for free. That’s how we found Nadia and Joshua for Debbie. And they have been amazing.
NADIA COSTA: Getting the prosecutors to agree that Debbie should be released didn’t happen overnight. It took more than three years to get them to see the light. And it was at that time that we were able to walk into that prison and give Debbie that letter.
JOSHUA SAFRAN: We have bad news and we have good news.
DEBORAH PEAGLER: OK.
JOSHUA SAFRAN: The bad news is, you have apparently been incarcerated legally. The good news is, the DA has agreed that your crime was voluntary manslaughter, which means your maximum sentence would have been six years under the guidelines (INAUDIBLE) that was in effect at the time.
DEBORAH PEAGLER: Oh, my God.
JOSHUA SAFRAN: … what it means, what the next steps are, and how…
NADIA COSTA: So, this is from the L.A. District Attorney’s Office.
“You presented significant issues and evidence which were unknown or unavailable at the time of trial. Once the matter has been returned to the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Superior Court, this office would be willing to offer a plea to one count of voluntary manslaughter, in violation of Penal Code Section 192A, with credit for the years of imprisonment served thus far. Such disposition satisfies our office policy of requiring a plea to the charge which most accurately describes the defendant’s criminal conduct. In context, it also serves the interests of justice.”
DEBORAH PEAGLER: Oh, my God. This is really happening.
JOSHUA SAFRAN: It’s really happening.
DEBORAH PEAGLER: It’s like you knew it could happen, but it’s really happening.
NADIA COSTA: I had absolute faith that letter meant the DA would do the right thing and that we would see our client released you know, very shortly. I had no doubt that it would happen.
JOSHUA SAFRAN: We filed our habeas petition based on that deal, and a few weeks after filing our habeas petition, we received a letter from someone in the district attorney’s office who we had never met before, saying, the deal is hereby withdrawn.
REPORTER: The prosecutor’s office refused comment, citing pending litigation, that litigation filed today by Peagler’s attorneys.
JOSHUA SAFRAN: We have asked the parole board to reconsider their last finding. The DA’s office, we’re suing them to force them to stick to their deal. And we’re appealing the superior court’s denial all the way up to the court of appeal, in the hope that they’re going to direct the court to do the right thing.
NADIA COSTA: There’s a reason that your case is going to draw attention to this remedy.
SUPPORTERS: Free Debbie now! Free Debbie now! Free Debbie now!
ANGELA HARRIS, sister of Deborah Peagler: The victim’s family, the Wilson family, has no objection to her coming home. They even went to every parole hearing for the last probably six or seven years, pleading with you all to let her come home. So, if they have no objection with it, who are you to keep her in there?
MARGARET WARNER: California remains the only state that lets convicted and imprisoned survivors of domestic violence petition the courts for their freedom.
You can watch “Crime After Crime” tonight on the Oprah Winfrey Network at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time.
To learn more about the Economist Film Project and to submit your own film, head to film.economist.com.