Title: Crime After Crime
Director: Yoav Potash
Featuring: Deborah Peagler, Nadia Costa, Joshua Safran, others
When has justice been served, and a criminal debt paid? When a victim’s family announces its forgiveness, and lobbies for the release of imprisoned? When new evidence casts a pall over a guilty plea? When an inmate is diagnosed with a terminal illness? These and other questions are at the heart of ‘Crime After Crime’, a documentary that spotlights the extraordinarily heartrending case of Deborah Peagler, a woman convicted in 1983, under a variety of extenuating circumstances, in the death of her abusive spouse, who it turns out pimped her out while she was still in high school and sexually abused his stepdaughter.
The story of Los Angeleno Peagler is a sad one. Already a teenage mother, she fell into a relationship with Oliver Wilson. At first he was kind and doting, and the pair even had a child together, Deborah’s second daughter. But Oliver’s own experiences with victimization soon led him to become a nasty perpetrator. He beat Deborah regularly, and did much worse. After Oliver spent only a single night in jail on a domestic incident involving a firearm, Deborah’s mother, fearing for the safety of her daughter, reached out to some gang members to throw a beating his way. Deborah led Oliver to an isolated area, and in the wake of the incident he wound up dead.
Owing to the case’s gang connections and the fact that Deborah collected a paltry life insurance policy, Deborah was facing a possible death penalty. To avoid that possibility, she entered a guilty plea, hoping to “only” receive life imprisonment, and eventually win release on parole. A 2002 California law that allowed for domestic violence cases with mitigating evidence to be reopened provided hope. Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, two Northern California lawyers with no connection to Peagler, took the case pro bono, thinking it might represent six or 12 months work. What followed was a labyrinthine, seven-year legal battle that uncovered myriad problems in the state’s original case (including perjured evidence), and eventually saw then-Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley renege on a signed release agreement.
‘Crime After Crime’ charts all of these twists and turns, though providing less of a true crime exhumation than a fairly persuasive piece of filmed advocacy. Peagler’s case attracted some measure of celebrity support over the years (Speech, of Arrested Development, appears in the movie, and Oscar-nominated actor James Cromwell introduced ‘Crime After Crime’ and anchored an ensuing Q&A panel at its Saturday evening Los Angeles Film Festival premiere presentation), and continues to be an important and defining case as it pertains to both battered women and a somewhat tawdry history of legacy protectionism within the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office. Even today there are outstanding legal battles still being waged.
Director Yoav Potash delivers a methodical and effective but very posed drama, leaning heavily on Costa and Safran as his guides through the case, even though Peagler appears throughout as well. The evidence the movie cites is compelling, and the fact that the film spans such a lengthy period of time gives it an additional natural dramatic pull; unexpected, complicating factors pop up, repeatedly lengthening the odds for Peagler.
Still, while the film chronicles emotionally charged subjects like sexual and physical abuse, as well as unjust imprisonment, it has a fairly dispassionate heart, which is something of a blessing or a curse depending on one’s point-of-view. Potash has the benefit of an inherently interesting story, basically, and two indefatigable crusaders. But when Potash tracks down Cooley and gets a chance to ask him about the case, he whiffs; the same holds true with other parties opposing Costa and Safran’s efforts. It’s okay for a film to be subjective, but ‘Crime After Crime’ has a bit of trouble even communicating opposition points-of-view, and additionally rooting the case within the larger context of imprisoned victims of spousal abuse, women pushed too far. Success in those arenas would have helped the movie connect to an even greater degree.
Following its initial theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles, the film will enjoy an expansion throughout the summer and, one presumes, find an even greater audience given its “presentation” status accorded by Oprah Winfrey’s new namesake network. For more information, visit www.CrimeAfterCrime.com, or follow them on Twitter via @CrimeAfterCrime.
Written by: Brent Simon