“Crime After Crime” is a moving documentary about a woman’s perseverence, and the sausage-making in “justice”

“Crime After Crime,” a feature-length documentary by Yoav Potash, about a troubled young woman, Deborah Peagler, who was convicted of homicide more than 25 years ago.  This, after having asked neighborhood gangsters to make her abusive lover stop beating and terrorizing her.  While a 2003 California law would only demand six years of her life in prison, her 1983 sentence took more than 25.  This is her story.

This suspenseful true story will show at the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul starting on July 29th.

Ms. Deborah Peagler awaits justice and freedom (courtesy Sundance)

Two lawyers, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, stepped up to take her case, pro bono, after a 2003 California law was passed that changed the game for victim/survivors of domestic abuse who are convicted of homicide, and free her.  In doing so they found a sympathetic client, and a District Attorney’s office, run by Steve Cooley, that has committed and is committing “Crime After Crime,” as Mr. Safran described their conduct, to save face and keep careers.

When you picture justice, this isn’t it: not “Crime After Crime.”  It’s a spectacular story, where the themes and stakes will remind some of you of the activist 1970s movie trend with such titles as 1980’s “Brubaker,” 1979’s “…And Justice for All,” and 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” of the underdog.

Winston Churchill, an extraordinary political icon of the United Kingdom, once said that “Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms…”  As it goes with that, so this seems to with justice: she was denied parole at least thrice.  At one point Safran describes how the parole and appellate process work in ways, which ignore or preclude the convict’s promise for doing good.  Ms. Deagler had been an ideal inmate, had earned a two-year degree, become a mentor to junior inmates and served far more time than 2000s laws demanded.  So the case requires Herculean efforts even when the law, precedent and rhetorical are on their side.

Lawyers Josh Safran and Nadia Costa guide Ms. Peagler toward freedom, if not justice (courtesy Berkeley Side)

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office does so many things that clash with the public’s interests or Ms. Peagler’s.  It makes you wretch and doubt America’s commitment to justice, or equal justice.  Originally she was sentenced via a legal perspective that lumped women, who lash out is desperation at their abusive husbands or lovers, with those women who kill in cold blood.

The stakes, offenses and perversions of justice, and morals in this story make it a crackerjack whodunit.  What makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand is that “Crime After Crime” trains its crosshairs, more and more, on the prosecutors misconduct.  The DA’s office conceals a pivotal document, uses unreliable and impotent witness testimony and reneges on compassionate agreements.

California's masses support Peagler's cause (courtesy LATimes.com)

“Crime After Crime” boasts as many plot twists and is as fast-paced as a sweeps week episode of “Law & Order.”  In some ways this is similar to 1993’s “In the Name of the Father,” even though that drama, which was based on a true story, exonerates justice in the United Kingdom.  In both stories, convicts languish in prison for crimes, and with sentences, more heinous than the evidence warranted.

Ms, Peagler’s odyssey is even more trying and dramatic than another documentary, POV’s “Presumed Guilty,” from 2010.  That  indicts the Mexican version of justice – and a very non-Western.  That candid and uncomfortable exposé provides excellent and telling comparison to Ms. Peager’s story.

Alongside being a splendid true crime drama, this documentary pushes us to consider several uncomfortable questions: what is justice?  what color is it?  why must it not only have a price, but one that makes our noses bleed?  Finally, what do we expect from it vs. what America’s founders wanted us to expect from it.

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