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Deborah Peagler, the subject of CRIME AFTER CRIME (Photo: mTuckman Media)

Edited, Produced & Directed by Yoav Potash
Released by Life Sentence Life in association with mTuckman Media
USA. 95 min. Not Rated

The real world in Crime After Crime is no Law & Order episode, where a murder can be neatly resolved in 45 minutes. Director Yoav Potash engrossingly generates as much suspense as fiction in showing how a woman, who has been in prison for more than 20 years, got there and then follows her story over five more years. Thanks to unique legislation, two volunteer lawyers with no experience in criminal law, and Potash going undercover as a videographer making a film-within-a film inside the prison, this documentary is an unusually intimate portrait of a resilient person and a resistant criminal justice system.


“Battered women’s syndrome” sounds familiar as a legal defense now. But not in 1982, when Deborah Peagler’s boyfriend was quickly released after his arrest for, again, assaulting her—he had also forced her into prostitution when she was 15. She took her mother’s advice to use the L.A. street justice of the Crips gang to keep him away from her and her young daughters, but a confrontation escalated out of control. With the boyfriend dead, one of the Crips made a deal with the zealous anti-gang prosecution task force, and she ended up with a life sentence.


The facts of Deborah’s case are presented with a convincing array of evidence, albeit with sympathetically slanted hindsight of how it all happened. Family photos of happier times intersperse with tearful testimony from her mother, who introduced the boyfriend to the family as a welcome respite, at first, from Deborah’s abusive father; her daughters (including one on leave from military service in Iraq); and the victim’s sister, recalling her brother’s abusive father and uncle, who were his male role models. One of the still incarcerated killers provides key information as well.

How Deborah’s two intensely committed lawyers came to be involved and their continuing commitment to the case is a significant part of the Erin Brockovich-like aspect of the film. In 1991, the California Evidence Code was the first in the nation to allow the battered women’s defense in cases going forward, and then, in 2002, to permit retroactive review of convictions and sentences. It was expanded in 2005 to allow petition for a writ of habeas corpus, the mechanism to challenge wrongful detention.

Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa were just zoning lawyers, but each had a personal interest to volunteer. Growing up, Safran had witnessed his mother’s frequent beatings before they fled her partner, and felt a calling through his Orthodox Jewish faith to help other victims. Costa had been a social worker for families torn by domestic violence and had experienced abuse herself. The lawyers are at first brimming with optimism that submitting proof of the boyfriend’s arrest for attacking Deborah and her family will quickly get her case readjudicated to voluntary manslaughter, which would have gotten her a maximum of six years. Director Potash meanwhile documents her turn around in the prison-shot “Life on the Inside,” where Deborah earns college degrees, tutors inmates, and leads a gospel choir, whose bright robes are embroidered with “CCWF” for the Central California Women’s Facility, the largest women’s prison in the United States.

The lawyers’ confidence and Debbie’s fortitude are balanced by the cynicism of the straight-from-central casting ex-journalist private investigator aiding them. As he uncovers records and witnesses from 20 years ago (including one who confesses to perjury), the law enforcement system digs in against admitting any problems from the past, or even to keeping promises in the present. Usually a climax of such a story occurs when the media creates a drumbeat for justice. Instead, the press attention raised the hackles of the district attorney’s (and the governor’s) office so that a heavy-hitting law firm has to be brought in (pro bono) to argue for the appeals of prosecutorial misconduct.

As the number of years Deborah is in jail adds up on the screen, Potash’s patient camera is right on top of the roller coaster of emotions as hopes rise and fall with new developments, and the odds get worse that she will ever be able to hug her grandchildren outside jail. (A lawyer’s running hobby is over-used as a visual metaphor for the marathon case.) Her ordeal plays out within the context of interviews with other tearful inmates in her battered women’s counseling group to the point that Deborah becomes an emblem of a larger problem in prisons. This is probably one reason why the wrenching film was selected for the first year of Oprah Winfrey Network’s Documentary Club. Nora Lee Mandel
July 1, 2011



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