By Andrew Cohen
Three Berkeley Law graduates figure prominently in a new film that tells the story of Debbie Peagler—a battered woman who served 27 years in prison in connection with her husband’s killing before she was finally paroled.
“Crime After Crime” also explores the plight of similarly situated women and spotlights the lawyers—classmates Josh Safran ’01 and Nadia Costa ’01—who worked for years to secure Peagler’s release. The film also features Marisa Gonzalez ’05, staff attorney for the California Habeas Project—a coalition of organizations that recruits and trains lawyers to assist incarcerated survivors of domestic violence—and Nancy Lemon ’80, who directs Berkeley Law’s Domestic Violence Practicum.
Directed by Yoav Potash, “Crime After Crime” is an official selection at 10 film festivals. It won the Henry Hampton Award for Excellence in Film & Digital Media, and garnered strong reviews at January’s prestigious Sundance Film Festival. The Los Angeles Times said it was “a must-see film,” and the Salt Lake Tribune called it “a riveting examination of justice denied through political manipulation and prosecutorial callousness.”
“Crime After Crime” will make its Bay Area premiere April 24 at 6 p.m. at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco. The film comes to Berkeley April 27 (6:30 p.m. at the Pacific Film Archive) and returns to Sundance Kabuki Cinemas May 2 at 9 p.m. Safran, Costa, and Potash will participate in a Q&A session after each screening.
In 1983, Peagler was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years-to-life for her involvement in the murder of Oliver Wilson—who had coerced her into prostitution while still in high school and beat her when she didn’t comply. The film reveals how Wilson and others also threatened Peagler’s mother.
When a new penal code with tougher domestic violence laws was introduced in California two decades after Peagler went to jail, Safran and Costa—whose legal work had focused mainly on land rights—took on her case. They put in countless pro bono hours on behalf of Peagler, who was released on parole in 2009. She died of lung cancer the following year.
“I occasionally consulted with Josh and Nadia on domestic violence issues during their representation of Debbie,” said Lemon, who explains California’s special domestic violence habeas law in the film. Commenting on the recent spike in the number of women sent to American prisons over the past several years, Lemon noted that 80 percent of them are survivors of domestic violence, rape, or abuse—and that many are physically and sexually abused in prison by guards or other prisoners.
“The criminal justice system tends to ignore women’s victimization for years,” she said. “Then, when these women realize they’re on their own and fight back against their abusers, they’re typically charged with first-degree murder—regardless of whether there’s any evidence of premeditation—and are locked up, often for life.”
Described in the film as a model prisoner, Peagler completed her education in prison and became supervisor of its electronics shop. Yet she was denied parole repeatedly, despite pleas on her behalf from Wilson’s family.
Although neither Safran nor Costa had any domestic violence or criminal law experience, Lemon said “they took this case on and learned a lot in the process.” Safran and Costa have returned to Berkeley Law to speak with students during screenings of earlier, unfinished versions of the film. Last year, they received the Domestic Violence Practicum’s Pro Bono Award at a large screening in San Francisco that Peagler attended.
Part of a statewide group that pushed to have California’s domestic violence habeas law enacted, Lemon has been an expert witness for several women seeking redress under the statute. She frequently consults with attorneys in cases that deal with the law, and has written extensively about California’s restraining order statutes and cases.
California is one of only three states where the governor has power to veto the parole board and, as Lemon noted, “our governors veto almost all board recommendations to release prisoners on parole.” In 2009, two of Lemon’s students, Erica Franklin ’10 and Heather Warnken ’09, attended one of the film’s screenings and approached Safran and Costa about creating a Facebook campaign to gather petition signatures for Peagler’s release.
“They managed to get 1,300 signatures in only a few weeks,” Lemon said. “Those signatures were read into the record at Debbie’s parole board hearing in summer 2009, and seemed to make a difference, as Debbie had been denied parole previously. Governor (Arnold) Schwarzenegger allowed the parole recommendation to stand, which is very unusual, so we think the signatures also helped influence his decision.”