Lawyers are terrible people, some of the most loathsome, scummy shit-eaters on the planet. Except the good ones. There are those that care, that care enough to devote countless under-appreciated and and sorely under-compensated hours to impoverished clients in need, who care more about justice than a paycheck, who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. I have dinner with one of those lawyers every night, and dinner conversations sometimes go like this, “How was your day, Dustin?” “It was good, I pissed off some people, stirred a hornet’s nest on the site, and wrote about ‘Cougar Town.’ How was your day?” “Oh, fine. I helped get a woman out of a violent situation, I prevented an unemployed man from being evicted and kicked out on the street, and I listened and validated half a dozen men and women who have never had anyone take their problems seriously before.”
“You’re late for dinner.”
Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa , the lawyers at the center of the documentary, Crime After Crime, are two more of the good ones. They took a pro bono case in 2000 in the hopes of freeing Debbie Peagler, a woman convicted in 1983 of killing her boyfriend. Peagler, who asked a gang-member to beat up her boyfriend, did not deny her wrongdoing.
However, Peagler only resorted to that after her boyfriend, Oliver Wilson, beat the shit out of her for years, forced her into prostitution, molested her daughter, and even held a gun on her and her children. She was trapped in a situation impossible to escape from. When the police refused to assist her, she resorted to the only means she had at her disposal: She asked a couple of friends to scare him away. Her friends got carried away, and Peagler got locked away for life.
Here’s a surprising statistic: 80 percent of imprisoned women in the United States are victims of domestic violence, rape, or some other form of abuse. In 1983, when Debbie Peagler was brought up on murder charges, defenses at the time weren’t allowed to introduce mitigating evidence of domestic abuse. To avoid the death penalty, Peagler accepted life in prison. Then, a little over a decade ago, California become the first — and so far, only — state to allow such evidence to be introduced. Safran and Costa attempted to use that law to reduce Peagler’s sentence. They’d spend nearly a decade trying.
It seemed like a fairly open-and-shut case, but because of systemic problems endemic to the justice system in both California and across the country, the task was nearly insurmountable. Safran and Costa had ample evidence of abuse, evidence of egregious prosecutorial conduct, and even supportive testimony from the victim’s family, all of whom had forgiven Peagler, and felt she had served enough time. At her parole hearing, she had thousands of letters of support, and only one who opposed, the L.A. District Attorney, the real villain in this film, who had at one point given Peagler a plea deal reducing her sentence to time served only to withdraw it once he became concerned that the city would be sued for misconduct.
He is a total fucking scumbag.
Yoav Potash’s documentary is a gripping one, exploring problems of domestic violence, exposing the flaws in the justice system, and telling the dramatic, inspiring story of Peagler, who is a compelling, indomitable figure. The focus of the documentary is rightfully on her, but the real heroes, I think, were the two lawyers who gave up so much of their lives, so much time with their children, and so many opportunities for financial gain to ensure that justice was served and that Peagler would not have to die in prison. They are less remarkable lawyers than they are remarkable people, and Crime After Crime is a testament to the atrocities of our legal system and the spirit and dedication it takes to overcome them.
Crime after Crime screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.