Documentary Highlights Flaws of Justice System

Tania Mukherjee

Last Tuesday night, the award-winning documentary Crime After Crime, based on the story of incarcerated domestic violence victim Deborah Peagler, was screened in Craig Lecture Hall. The event was co-sponsored by the Program Board, Forum Board, Peace and Conflict Connections Group, Oberlin College Dialogue Center, Multicultural Resource Center and the Office of Religious and Student Life, and was attended by many students, faculty and community members. The film’s director, Yoav Potash, and Joshua Safran, OC ’97, one of Peagler’s pro bono attorneys, were present at the event to talk about the film and domestic violence.

The 95-minute documentary, which has received accolades like Official Selection to the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and New York Times Critic’s Pick, tells the story of Peagler, who was arrested in 1982 and charged with first-degree murder after her partner Oliver Wilson was killed by rival gang members. A federally funded prosecution group known as “Operation Hardcore,” which was developed to suppress gangs, framed Wilson’s murder as a cold-blooded plan hatched by Peagler to get Wilson’s life insurance money, so the group pursued the death sentence. Peagler took a plea and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, leaving behind her two young daughters.

In 2002 Peagler’s case was reopened, as California had passed new laws allowing battered women to present evidence of abuse for crimes that were influenced by this abuse. Through the California Habeas Project, Safran and fellow Attorney Nadia Costa were assigned to Peagler. By the time she was freed seven years later, she had been diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and given a maximum of eight months to live.

While the attorneys were successful in obtaining Peagler’s release after 27 years, the District Attorney’s office acknowledged that she should have served a maximum of six years. Others in similar situations continue to be incarcerated for decades in California and other states. Nearly 1,900 women are serving sentences in California for domestic violence-related crimes and over 80 percent of all female inmates have experienced some form of abuse.

According to Safran, women of color are disproportionately represented in prisons, and many of them are survivors of violence. In terms of acknowledging domestic violence, Safran said that it is rarely discussed in almost all communities and “remains the last frontier of taboos.”

However, Peagler’s case has caught the attention of many, including major news outlets. This coverage has, in turn, sparked discussions about the issue.

Safran, an Orthodox Jew, is also committed to having these discussions in places of worship and has worked to initiate dialogues about the justice system in Jewish communities. Even though California is the only state to have laws for reducing sentences of domestic violence survivors incarcerated for crimes directly influenced by their experience, a large number of groups are working to make survivor-friendly laws in other parts of the country, and progress has been made in New York, New Jersey and Illinois.

One of these campaigns is the Free From Abuse Campaign, which is a “national nonprofit project that uses the combined power of documentary film, grassroots advocacy and community engagement to help end wrongful violence, sex trafficking and wrongful incarceration.” Its ultimate goal is “a society and criminal justice system that are truly free from abuse.”

College sophomore Daniella Mostow, who came across this movie at the Cleveland International Film Festival, was instrumental in bringing Potash and Safran to campus and believes it is extremely important to start dialogue on domestic abuse victims and illegal incarceration on campus.

“I think it is valuable to have this movie and movies like these on campus because it is something that not many people know about,” Mostow said. “And if people do conceptually know about the issues, I find it helpful to put a face and story that connects with the politics. I heard from a few people after that they wanted to have more screenings of this movie on campus to try to reach even more people. It was really successful to have the event, and hopefully it will lead to more conversation.”