Crime After Crime – a Film at Sundance You Shouldn’t Miss
If you want a roadmap for Crime After Crime, you might try the Book of Job. The documentary by Yoav Potash examines the case of Deborah Peagler who served 27 years on a 1981 murder conviction for planning the killing of her boyfriend, Oliver Wilson.
Its an iconic story ““ the saga of a wrongly convicted prisoner is older than cinema, and its made for memorable films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and even a comedy like Sullivans Travels ““ but they dont get much darker than this one.
Deborah Peagler was forced into prostitution by Wilson, a man she met at the age of 15 who abused her and her young child. After making many threats to kill her, Wilson was arrested in 1982, but released the next day. When Peaglers mother hired two LA gang-members to punish the boyfriend, Deborah helped lure the man to a park, where the two enforcers ended up killing Wilson.
Prosecutors in an anti-gang unit at the LA District Attorneys office said that an insurance policy (which Oliver Wilson had bought) made the killing a contract hit. Peagler, threatened with overwhelming evidence, pleads guilty to a murder charge. Later, California passes a law providing for special consideration in crimes committed by an abused woman against an abuser. Peagler is denied parole ten years after her confinement and denied parole again ten years later. The LA District Attorney Steve Cooley, under pressure, signs and later renegs on a deal to release her. Evidence that perjury was in testimony against Peagler surfaces. So does correspondence within the DAs office that the case against her is seriously flawed ““ and evidence that the defense should have been given was never provided.
Peaglers volunteer lawyers, both of whom are abuse victims themselves, take up her case and eventually sue the LA District Attorney. By this point, Peagler has incurable lung cancer. On a fourth try, Peaglers parole board recommends her release, pursuant to approval by Californias governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator signs her release out of jail. Hes the same governor who slashed all state funding for domestic violence programs.
Dont look for cinema here that explores the visual boundaries of documentaries. You dont need art here. The facts are gripping enough, although Potash does subject you to what feels like a Public Service Announcement in support of battered women about halfway through. Fortunately, the documentary heads back to the most compelling of its stories, the pattern of the abuse of justice by prosecutors in this case, particularly Lael Rubin, who oversaw appeals in the LA DAs office.
The story is spellbinding, but the film isnt perfect. For instance, it incorporates interviews conducted over a span of several years, resulting in some of the interviewees looking very different depending on when the interviewed took place. So different, in fact, that you dont realize its the same person speaking. But these are minor gripes.
The prosecutors, however, remain the same, then and now. These are the prosecutors who brought you the McMartin day care abuse trial, in which children were induced to invent stories of mistreatment. Prosecutors found abuse there that seems to have never happened, but they found that documented abuse wasnt worthy of consideration in the case of Peagler. Somethings wrong in that office.
If you didnt remember, these are the prosecutors who lost the OJ Simpson case. As somebody said at the time, the difference between OJ and Hitler is that Hitler left fewer clues. Why do these prosecutors still have jobs?
Premieres of films at Sundance tend to be friends and family events, with everyone who participated or gave money crowding onto the stage for a long-awaited (and usually short-lived) moment of triumph. We know that Deborah Peagler wont be there after the credits roll on Crime After Crime. She died of cancer. Nor will the Crips hit men who went overboard on Oliver Wilson that night in the LA park.
But what about those who still have questions to answer? There are still gaps in the account of events from the office of the District Attorney ““ a witch-hunt policy, the deliberate use of testimony from a perjurer to the DAs payroll as an informer, and the self-protecting delay in addressing Peaglers case until, thanks to the Governator, she finally emerged from prison in the late stages of terminal cancer. We know who could begin to answer those questions. Somehow I doubt that Lael Rubin and Steve Cooley will be there. Cooley, who ran for California Attorney General in November and gave a triumphant victory speech before election results showed that hed lost, is smart enough to know that he shouldnt show up for another victory speech at the Sundance premiere.