July 28, 2011

Crime after crime: Battered woman’s struggle for justice

Debbie Peagler was 15 when she met and fell in love with a charming young man named Oliver Wilson. Unfortunately for her, Wilson was a pimp and drug dealer who ferociously abused her over the next six years. He beat her with a bullwhip, prostituted her, forced her to perform oral sex in front of his friends, put hot ashes on her hands and made her eat his feces, according to witnesses. When she said she would leave, he threatened to kill her.

On May 27, 1982, she asked him to drive her to a park. Waiting in ambush were two friends of her mother, neighborhood gang members who killed him. The prosecution maintained that Peagler hired the men. Peagler claimed she never discussed killing Wilson.

Threatened with the death penalty, Peagler pled guilty to first-degree murder and went to prison. And there she would have remained for the rest of her life, if not for a little serendipity.

After California enacted a law in 2000 to ensure fair trials for battered women who killed their abusers, the California Habeas Project selected Peagler as someone who might be eligible for relief. A local law firm, Bingham McCutchen, agreed to take the case pro bono. Two rookie land-use attorneys, Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa, began collecting new evidence to substantiate Peagler’s abuse.

Peagler’s story had deep personal meaning for Safran. As a 9-year-old boy, he helplessly cried through the night as an abusive boyfriend pummeled his mother. Eventually, he and his mother escaped, and he learned to channel his simmering rage into legal advocacy.

Over the course of several years, the attorneys found long-lost witnesses, learned of allegedly perjured evidence, and got new statements from the men who had killed Wilson.

For her part, Peagley was a model prisoner. She had spent her decades behind bars tutoring illiterate women, leading a gospel choir, earning two college degrees, and participating in a battered women’s support group.

Eventually, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office agreed that Peagley should have been convicted of voluntary manslaughter, which at the time carried a sentence of only two to six years. Prosecutors signed a statement agreeing to Peagley’s immediate release from prison.

But that happy ending was not to be. After a political backlash in his office, the district attorney reneged on the deal, and Peagley’s petition for release was denied. Meanwhile, the case took on a new urgency when Peagley was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.

Costa and Safran continued to petition for Peagley’s release on numerous grounds: Her guilty plea was coerced, false evidence was introduced against her, and the original prosecution would have differed had there been expert testimony on battering.

Although the courts failed her, she was finally paroled from prison in August 2009, thanks in part to an international grassroots campaign. She currently lives in Carson, CA.

Sadly, Bay Area private investigator Bobby Buechler, who gathered exculpatory evidence and was involved in the crusade to free Peagley (and whom I happened to know), died unexpectedly shortly before her release.

Filmmaker Yoav Potash spent five years filming the story as it unfolded, both in and out of prison. CRIME AFTER CRIME is the award-winning documentary of this dramatic saga. The film is currently playing around the United States; check HERE for more information and to find a venue near you.
Hat tip: Martin

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