by Jessica Mosby
After watching the new documentary Crime After Crime at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, I was angry. I felt an intense call to action – to tell everyone I know that they must see the 93-minute film as soon as possible. The injustices documented on screen are unbelievable and the dramatic twists put fictional crime drama to shame, as the story is too sensational for even Law & Order.
Debbie Peagler, a survivor of domestic violence, was sentenced to life in prison in 1983 for her connection to the murderer of her abuser. Crime After Crime documents attorneys Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa’s battle against a corrupt legal system intent on keeping Peagler incarcerated for first-degree murder, despite evidence that she should have been convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Demonstrating a tremendous amount of tenacity, these two rookie land-use attorneys fight pro bono for Peagler’s freedom while still working at their day jobs. The attorneys’ commitment to Peagler, a woman they did not know until taking on the case, is nothing short of impressive.
For over five years filmmaker Yoav Potash filmed the action as it unfolded around Peagler and her attorneys. Potash captures the drama of Peagler’s fight for freedom, while paying special attention to her biography as a domestic abuse survivor. For the entirety of the film, I was literally on the edge of my seat, my fist raised in anger while still hoping against all odds that Peagler would be released.
In anticipation of the San Francisco Bay Area theatrical debut on August 5, I met with filmmaker Yoav Potash and attorney Joshua Safran to discuss the film that consumed years of their life.
How did you first hear about Debbie’s story?
Yoav Potash: I heard about it from Joshua Safran. There was this woman in prison who had been abused and had never had the chance to present the evidence about the battering that she endured to the court. And really should have. Her circumstances were that she was forced into prostitution, beaten by this man, and eventually two men stepped in to her defense and ended up killing [her abuser]. And she went to prison.
Once I understood that was the story, I said “I’ll meet her, I’ll film her, let me see.” Once I did that I was hooked. Meeting her in person, seeing her there in prison where she is serving a life sentence and has been through all of this, and yet she is an uplifting, inspiring person to be around. She’s leading the gospel choir, she’s teaching illiterate inmates to read and write, she’s earning college degrees for herself behind bars – and you can’t help but be impressed, influenced, and even inspired by her. She’s been through hell and yet here she is leading the most positive, inspiring kind of life she could possibly find for herself. I just felt like that’s a story I want to tell [and] that’s a story I want people to know about.
When you met Debbie Peagler, did you immediately decide this was going to be a documentary?
Potash: Yes. Immediately it was clear. Things were still unfolding. The kind of documentaries that I like the best are the ones where the activity of the story is really unfolding in front of the camera, rather than looking back in interviews to what happened back then. I wanted to be there to capture as many of these events as they happened. The fact that Deborah was not free was a plus. I could be there and try to watch these lawyers get her out of prison in the hopes that the audience would be on the edge of their seat thinking, “Is she going to get out? What are going to be all the twists and turns along the road?” Basically, I was committed to seeing that story all the way through.
You thought it was going to be a year when you started filming, but it ended up being five years. Did you ever think about moving on to another project?
Potash: I certainly thought about completing the film without the story itself having resolution. Maybe it is going to take too long for Deborah Peagler to get out of prison, or maybe she won’t get out of prison, and the film just has to end at some point. That was certainly a reality I had to deal with. I’m not going to say how everything turns out because I want people to see it in the movie. I think that is the most powerful way to learn how this whole story concludes.
Joshua, how did you feel when your friend started filming? Did you think it would bring more attention to the case?
Joshua Safran: Initially, to be honest with you, I wanted to work with Yoav. He cast me as an actor in a short film…called Minute Matrimony when I was in law school. When you have a friend who is a filmmaker you are constantly pitching them ideas…I would talk to him about this case, as a friend. At one point I had invited him to come down and screen test our client. At the time, I actually thought she was going to get out very quickly. At that point I thought, “How perfect! What a great little story. We can have her walking out the prison gates and that will be fun.” Of course, I worked on this case for eight years. For me, it was this whole marathon.
You and your co-attorney are land-use attorneys. How did you become involved in representing Deborah Peagler in this criminal case?
Safran: In 2002 when this law [California Penal Code 1473.5] was passed, a non-profit organization called The Habeas Project went and interviewed all of the women serving life in prison for murder in California and asked them if domestic violence played a role in their crime. They came up with a list of about twenty women that they thought deserved to be released under this new law. And went to the twenty largest law firms, and asked that we each take one case. They made a pitch at our firm. Nadia went to their pitch, then came and asked “Do you want to help me get a survivor of domestic violence out of prison?” I leapt at the opportunity, without really knowing why or what was entailed.
We got a letter in the mail that was like “Your client is Deborah Peagler.” It took us awhile to get in to see her. Ironically, it is almost as hard to get into prison as it is to get out. It took us several months to get in to meet our new client. The second we met her I was stunned by not only how normal she was and unprisoner-like she was, but how charismatic and delightful she was. She is the kind of person you would meet at a social event and feel like this is someone I want to be friends with. We kind of befriended one another right then and there.
The film documents how you were working your day jobs and traveling from the Bay Area to visit Debbie in prison and to LA where she had been tried. Did you and Nadia ever think about getting other attorneys to take the case?
Safran: We didn’t. The reason is it took us almost three years to get Debbie to trust us and tell us her story.
Once we took the case, I walked in, naively, to the prison, met this wonderful woman and said “Hey, I’m a white Jewish guy and you’re an African American woman, why don’t you tell me all the terrible things that have happened to you. The times you were raped, the times you were abused, the times you were beaten with a bull whip. Tell them to me all right now, I’ll write them down on a piece of paper, and we’ll make it a public document. Okay?”
Of course her reaction was, “I don’t really remember anything, no one saw, and I don’t feel comfortable talking about it.” Which is what anyone’s reaction would be. I very quickly realized I had to come up with a way of getting her comfortable with me, [and] I had to be comfortable with her. It was actually at a moment when she was describing how Oliver Wilson [her abuser and the man she was convicted of murdering] would, after he was done beating her, tend to her wounds with witch hazel and put raw meat on her bruises to bring down the swelling. And I said, “Oh yeah, my stepdad use to do that with my mom.”
She kind of gave me this look, and we had this moment of understanding. She was like, now we’re not attorney/client, now we’re like a couple of fellow travelers telling war stories. And then we would tell each other our stories. At that point, when she spoke I was writing it down. When I spoke she was just listening. That was, for me, the ice-breaking moment when I thought that we’d gained the trust.
At times in the case we became so overwhelmed, we thought it would be great if we could bring someone else in to help us or someone else to do the prison visits or something. At the end of day, the case for us was about Debbie and about our friendship with her. It simply would have been impossible to have some stranger walk in and be like, “Tell me about the time this happened.” Because that level of trust cannot be replicated. Yoav was with us for years, and Debbie accepted him as well as a member of the team.
Joshua, have you and Nadia taken any more pro bono work?
Safran: Right now we’re both still focused on our day jobs. Our hope is that with the success of Crime After Crime, with audience support, and with Debbie’s Campaign that we’ll be able to, somehow, carve a day job out of this.
Part of it too, with Crime After Crime, is to create a systemic change. Hopefully, instead of taking it woman by woman, we can take it on Attorney General by Attorney General. We can sweep into town and say, “Where’s your law? Why don’t you have this law? Get this law adopted. Now that you have the law adopted let’s have a systematic review of all the women. With this budget crisis, what better time to say, “Do we really need to spend $200,000 a year on each inmate who’s unnecessarily imprisoned?”
Potash: We could save money. Save tax-payer dollars in this time of precious little resources, by just spending them a little wiser, reviewing these cases, and determining who was a victim of abuse. If you look at women who are in prison for life sentences, you are going to find four out of five are there because they were fighting back against an abusive boyfriend, an abusive husband or pimp. Are those women really the people who we need to keep locked up for life, spending all this money every single year to keep them there? I don’t think so.
About the Author:
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.