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Domestic violence and wrongful convictions: Turning a movie into a movement

Deborah Peagler is the subject of the documentary “Crime After Crime”

California is home to the largest U.S. women’s prison, located in Chowchilla. Women represent the fastest growing sector of the prison population nationwide and in the state. And the Habeas Project says about two-thirds of women behind bars report they are survivors of domestic abuse. One of those women was Deborah Peagler.

Peagler says her boyfriend started abusing her shortly after they began dating at age 15. She says he was upset with her because she refused to prostitute herself.

DEBORAH PEAGLER: I just balled up on the floor in a ball, I’ll never forget, he was kicking me and kicking me and kicking me. And I was like, “I promise, I promise, I’ll do it next time. Please don’t hit me no more, please don’t hit me no more, please stop hitting me.”

Debi Peagler speaks from Chowchilla prison in a new documentary based on her story called “Crime After Crime.” The film shows how the abuse escalated: after she says her partner threatened to kill her, Debi Peagler was involved in her abuser’s murder. Though she wasn’t present when he was killed, that involvement landed her in prison for 25 years to life.

PEAGLER: Even though I hated him and I was mad at him, I still didn’t want him dead; I just wanted him to leave me alone. That’s all I keep saying 20 years later – if only he would have just left me alone.

In 2002, California was the first state to pass what is known as the Habeas Law. It allows any female prisoner who has suffered domestic violence related to the crime to submit evidence of that abuse and retry her case. Through the San Francisco-based Habeas Project, Debi Peagler was paired up with two pro bono lawyers, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, both land-use lawyers without much experience trying criminal cases like Peagler’s. Their work to free Peagler revealed some startling facts surrounding her conviction, and ultimately made it clear that she should have only served six years for her crime. Joshua Safran spoke with KALW’s Martina Castro about what it was like to work with Debi Peagler on her case.

JOSHUA SAFRAN: What struck me about Deborah was that not only was she normal and didn’t seem like she belonged in a prison, but that she was legitimately the kind of person that if you met her at your place of work or on the street or at a party, you’d kind of want to be friends with her and want to make sure that she came over and that you hung out together. She just had this very kind of friendly, likeable, charming effect and was just really good at cheering you up and kind of inspiring you at every moment.

MARTINA CASTRO: What were the circumstances around her case that made it for you, hopeful?

SAFRAN: We were optimistic with her case because there was this brand new law and it was a brand new law that was designed for a very small target audience, just a couple dozen women in prison. The other thing was that in an ironic sense, the worse your abuse was, the better your chances of getting out. So, we would always tell Debi, “The good news is that you were systematically beaten with a bullwhip,” or “The good news is all these horrible things happened to you because now, in a sense, it makes your case that much stronger.” So, we had those two things going for us and we kind of naively assumed that the system would work and that it would be maybe a year and we would have her out.

CASTRO: But that’s not what happened. But without giving too much away, how did things change from that moment onward?

SAFRAN: Things changed because we got to the L.A. district attorney’s office and we saw that the L.A. district attorney’s office was systematically opposing the release of every single woman that came forward. Unlike in San Francisco or Alameda County, the L.A. DA is basically just ignoring this law, or worse, was refusing to consider this law. So, we ended up spending about two-and-a-half years building Debi’s case.

CASTRO: And the film documents what an uphill battle this was in not just forming the case but also, parts of the justice system that were literally working against you and highlighting a lot of corruption that was happening at the DA’s office at the time. And then years go by. Actually, there’s a great clip of you taping to a whiteboard, to really lay out all the places you have to go through to get this woman out of prison – a process that you didn’t think was going to take as long as it did. But then it rolled into 24, 25, 26 years for Deborah Peagler to maybe get out, when in fact, when it is discovered that she only needed to serve six years in prison.

What kind of insight into the justice system did this process give you? As a viewer it was kind of discouraging and disheartening, but you’re still a lawyer, right?

SAFRAN: I am still a lawyer. I’m ashamed; I’m an officer of the court. I’m really ashamed about the way that the system works. It’s a complete embarrassment. I went into this case with a healthy skepticism about the strength of the criminal justice system, but a fundamental faith that if you actually “lawyered” something properly, i.e. if you really had the resources and you really spent the time and you really could just tell everyone the truth, that eventually the system would work; it might be a little rusty. And I walked away from it kind of feeling like our criminal justice system is … kind of farcical, arbitrary, capricious, happenstance, and luck plays as much of a role as anything else. No one reads anything; everything takes forever. It’s like Alice in Wonderland. It’s totally bizarre and scary. Particularly, you know, I work in the civil justice system and the civil system kind of works … it just takes a really long time. So, the joke that these former prosecutors were telling me as I met people in both the prosecution and defense community was, “Oh, well the civil system works because you guys are arguing about money. Us? We’re just arguing about human life.” It was a really eye-opening experience.

CASTRO: What do you think could be learned from it?

SAFRAN: As the film points out, Debi’s story is not unique and even in California, there’s dozens and dozens of Debi’s. And California’s the only state in the union that even has this law. So I think, our belief is that we’re trying to use the movie and turn it into a movement. We can at least begin to have a dialogue about how to change it. That’s really kind of a cultural change because there is this perception that, “Wwell, domestic violence takes place in a household; therefore it’s private and we don’t get involved.” The other is that when a woman kills, that that’s sort of more nefarious and more horrible than a man who might kill in a certain circumstance. The sad thing is that all of these women who have killed or who are implicated in a killing, they’re all very situational. Women statistically tend to kill people that they know very well, who have been abusing them systematically over a period of time. And that, to me, doesn’t feel like a murder in the legal sense of the word. It maybe feels like manslaughter and there’s lots of different mitigations and factors that need to be analyzed. And, this is the most damning fact: most of those killings could have been avoided had law enforcement been effectively policing these domestic violence situations. Debi’s case is a perfect example. Her batterer, who was a pimp and a drug dealer and who had essentially possessed her since she was 15, attempted to kill her with some friends and came to her home where she was hiding out [at] her mother’s house. He threatened to kill Debi and everyone else inside. He was arrested by the sheriff’s department and released the next day when they concluded that this was really a domestic assault with a deadly weapon. And because it was domestic, they didn’t deem him a risk to society, which of course, he was. And Debi ended up going away for life.

CASTRO: So are you still doing that work?

SAFRAN: I am not doing that work as a day job, of course I never did it as a day job. My day job is the deputy court attorney for the Port of Oakland, so if you get “violently shaken down” by the TSA and you put in a complaint, I’m the guy who has to deal with it. But I am promoting this movie and this movement and we’ve started a nonprofit organization called “Deborah’s Campaign,” Debi’s campaign, which has the goal of using this movie for educational purpose and to change laws. And we are targeting New York state right now, which is poised to become the second state in the nation to have one of these post-conviction remedy laws. Part of my view is that we have to start viewing these cases more like class actions. We can’t spend seven-and-a-half years getting one woman out of prison. We have to get whole classes of innocent women or else there’s going to be too many people left behind.

For show times and more information about the film, visit the “Crime After Crime” website. This story originally aired on August 18, 2011.