Crime After Crime, the title of this documentary, says it all. The former crime refers to the 1982 murder of Oliver Wilson in Los Angeles, California. The latter crime is the criminal justice system’s response (or, more appropriately, failure to respond) to the obviously wrongful first degree murder conviction of Wilson’s girlfriend, and the mother of his child, Deborah “Debbie” Peagler. The murder for which Peagler was convicted didn’t take place at Peagler’s hands, and occurred only after Peagler endured years of physical and emotional abuse inflicted by Wilson, who also forced Peagler into prostitution for his own financial gain and molested Peagler’s daughter.
Fast forward twenty-some years, and enter pro bono attorneys Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa, along with a new domestic violence law enacted in California (California Penal Code §1473.5) that made it possible for some already-incarcerated prisoners who were victims of domestic violence – like Debbie – to challenge their convictions, especially in cases where evidence of the battering and violence had never been considered.
The film was directed and produced by Yoav Potash, no stranger to documentaries chronicling issues of race, struggle, and criminal justice. Crime after Crime serves not only to chronicle Debbie’s arduous, lengthy trip through the labyrinth of parole boards, courts, and seemingly ethically unsound prosecutors, but it also serves as an expose highlighting the system’s inadequacies when it comes to delivering justice for women and others in her position.
The San Francisco International Film Festival’s asked reviewers not to reveal too much about the documentary, which apparently wowed Oprah Winfrey as well. Her network, OWN, acquired it after it showed at the Sundance Film Festival.
At the post-film Q&A, we were fortunate enough to hear the myriad stories of the many key influential and inspirational folks who Crime after Crime brought to life for us. Not only were Yoav, the director, and both Nadia and Joshua, Debbie’s attorneys, with us at the Q&A, but so was Natasha Wilson, Debbie and Oliver’s daughter, along with the director of the California Habeas Project, the organization that was crucial in matching Debbie up with her pro bono attorneys.
Natasha’s support for her mom was beyond clear, as was her gratitude and continuing relationship with Josh and Nadia. The attorneys’ relationship with Debbie and her children and grandchildren obviously go well beyond that of the typical attorney-client, and there’s little doubt from the exchanges at the Q&A that the last ten years have made them family.
Nadia, Josh, and Yoav, all agreed that from the moment they met Debbie behind bars, they were 100% committed to her case, and to telling her story. Nadia explained that from the second she met Debbie, she knew that pursuing her case was just “what you did.” Neither Nadia nor Josh had any indication of the long haul they were in for, though.
Both acknowledged that their commitment to the cause – justice for domestic violence victims – was very personal. Yoav, the director, described the machinations that getting into the largest women’s prison – where Debbie was housed – required. Yoav was actually a member of Debbie’s recognized legal team, and was allowed into the prison as the team’s “official videographer.”
I was touched by a former fellow prisoner who served with Debbie, and who had made the trek to the SFIFF screening to share stories of her fond memories with Debbie behind bars.
Crime after Crime is a must-see. It shows again at the Kabuki next Monday May 2 at 9:00 p.m.
I recommend checking it out at the festival in hopes of catching some great post-film Q&A, which was a treat in itself, but if you can’t make it then, the good news is that it will be out in theaters in the Bay Area in August 2011.