So, um guys, the OWN Documentary Club is kicking ass in its film selections. We know OWN is the channel your mom watches, but the documentaries it features are excellent films that have received festival runs, critical acclaim, and can’t be seen on a large national stage anywhere else. It’s a great outlet for those documentary films that contain years of work by the filmmakers and don’t see the kind of distribution they deserve. The access alone is one reason why the OWN Documentary Club is worth the while– any distribution for documentaries is needed– but also because they’ve sported some home run choices in their selections. The woman knows how to pick good stuff after all, and “Crime After Crime,” funded in part by the Sundance Documentary Film Program, is another bases loaded, out of the park hit for documentary fans. Following the years-long appeal to release the illegally incarcerated Deborah Peagler from her 25 to life sentence, the film is a devastating portrait of the power of the human spirit, and a searing indictment of the broken criminal justice system that will leave audiences in a puddle on the floor.
Let’s back up a bit. “Crime After Crime” begins inauspiciously enough, introducing Debbie and the basic facts of her story clearly and without fanfare. At the age of 15, Deborah Peagler was introduced to Oliver Wilson by her mother, who was charmed by him at the grocery store. They started dating, he doted on Debbie’s daughter and treated Debbie like a princess… until he forced her into prostitution, became severely abusive and started dealing drugs. In 1982, after Debbie left him and moved back into her mom’s house with her two daughters, Oliver showed up with friends and shotguns, threatening to kill them, until the police showed up. He was arrested, but released the next day, seriously dampening Debbie’s faith in the police to adequately handle the situation. Her mother encouraged her to ask two members of the Crips gang to “take care” of Oliver, beat him up and run him off their turf, and Debbie complied, out of a lack of options. Ultimately, Oliver was killed, strangled by the two Crips, and though Debbie left the scene of the crime, she was the one who took him there. Threatened with the death penalty, Debbie and her co-defendant were forced to plead guilty and received 25 years to life.
Upon the passage of a 2002 California law stating that victims of domestic violence can have their cases reopened with attention to their personal circumstances, two lawyers, Josh Safran and Nadia Costa, take on her case pro bono through the Habeas Project. This is the point in the film in which the filmmaker, Yoav Potash, begins to masterfully peel back the many layers in Debbie’s story. Slowly and methodically, he reveals twists and turns in the appeals process that stretch on for more than 5 years, digging up 20+ year old evidence of legal misconduct by the Los Angeles DA’s office, not to mention the current roadblocks they throw up, in order to save face. All the while, Debbie has been maintaining a graceful and positive presence while being illegally incarcerated for more than 25 years.
The skill and deft timing with which Potash reveals these stepping stones and obstacles in her case unfolds a tale that is absolutely devastating, with such emotional impact that I hesitate to reveal more details for the sake of ruining it. The lawyers, Nadia and Josh, serve as narrators within the film, interspersed with family interviews and interviews with Debbie herself. Potash also lets the audience get to know these lawyers too, both victims of domestic abuse in childhood, and each with their own personal inspirations leading them in the fight– Josh through his Orthodox Jewish faith and Nadia in her training for ultramarathons. Their spiritual and physical strength are both needed to fight this long battle, and incorporating them as true characters in this tale is a smart move by the director. As both lawyers weep in the car on the way to see Debbie during a particularly dark time, it’s obviously apparent that this is so much more than just a pro bono case for them– it’s a personal journey they vow to see through to the end.
Potash marks time by the year until the last 30 minutes of the film, when the clock intertitles speed up with the many advancements in her situation, building to a breathless finish that will leave the viewer emotionally crushed and yet also hopeful and joyous. With filming starting in 2002, this film covers the better part of a decade in this woman’s fight, and it’s a fitting tribute to the unlikely spokesmodel for the roughly 100,000 female victims of domestic violence who are behind bars today. Her story is one that needs to be told, and despite all of the adversity, it’s a haunting portrait of Debbie Peagler’s life, and we owe it to her to bear witness. Just don’t forget the tissues. [A]
“Crime After Crime” airs TONIGHT, Thursday, November 3rd on OWN at 9 pm.