Heartland Film Festival October 13 – 22, 2011

“Justice Delayed…?”

Crime After Crime is the unflinching and harrowing documentary of Deborah Peagler, a woman convicted of the murder of her boyfriend, Oliver Wilson.  Right from the beginning, the film concedes that this isn’t the tale of someone unjustly accused, because she did indeed participate in the slaying of Wilson.  The injustice, however, revolves around her sentence.

The evidence of her domestic abuse was not allowed to be introduced at trial.  Under today’s laws, she’d have served a maximum of 6 years.  By the time the documentary begins, she had served twenty years.  The battered women’s movement was in its infancy at the time of her conviction, but in 2002, a new law went on the California books.  Domestic violence survivors had the chance to present new evidence

“Until you’ve walked in my shoes, you don’t know.” –Joyce

Oliver Wilson was the latest legacy of (self-)hate, as his  father and uncle molested his sister.  That was the model of manhood presented to him to emulate.  He turned around and pimped out Deborah, systematically abusing her, from her sophomore through senior years of high school.  Constraining and controlling every aspect of her life like any other pimp, he had calloused his soul to not allow himself to have human empathy.

Deborah had two daughters:  Tikisha (with a man before Oliver) and Natasha (whom Oliver was the father).  She was beaten with a bullwhip, not allowed to have friends over or even open the door.  She suffered countless occasions of abuse and humiliation.  But while the police were fairly impotent, unable to keep Oliver in jail more than over night, he was not above street law.  Deborah’s mother, Joyce, suggested that Deborah get a couple of Crips members to get Oliver to leave her alone.   Their beating of him eventually killed him.  Deborah was convicted of a murder for hire.

Enter The Habeas Project, which has as its mission to reopen cases and present evidence of abuse.  This was how pro-bono attorney Joshua Safran and co-counsel Nadia Costa came into her life.   As an Orthodox Jew, Joshua finds inspiration in the traditional Hebrew prayer of matir asurim (literally “free the captives”), thus having an obligation to fight for people’s freedom.

“Abuse doesn’t just happen in South Central.” –Nadia

Joshua’s connection to abuse began when he was nine years old and witnessed his mother beaten too many times by a refugee on the run whom she fell in love with.  Her abuse filled Joshua with shame, fear, panic, and powerlessness.  Nadia, too, had her own history of abuse which she didn’t want to share.   Through their work, they had a chance to heal their wounds as well as Deborah’s.

There is a power to putting our feelings to words through prayer, sharing our stories of woundedness, and finding healing as we push one another forward.  Being a wounded healer means allowing others to enter our lives, connecting their story with yours … without having any idea where this will lead or what it will look like. We can only hope that life on the other side of the journey to wholeness—the journey our of our dark places—will be a much better place.

Wounded stories become opportunities in people’s lives. Moments of confession, to reflect on and live out our faith, and to build community if we’re bold enough to wade into another’s pain and story. To do so means we have to move outside of our own preoccupations and agendas and needs and worries. It means a withdrawal of self to allow room for another. It may mean allowing them room to vent, cry, be angry, be silent, rest; in short, to be a safe place.

“None of us are free as long as one of us is chained.” –Deborah

Working for her freedom was an often bleak process best likened to an uphill marathon.  But along this journey of the pursuit of justice, Deborah experienced forgiveness: by Oliver’s family and herself.

“Crime after crime” refers to the systematic injustice Deborah faced, having fulfilled the true length of her sentence decades previous.  From a crooked District Attorney’s office, to the deaf courts, to an uncaring prison system, the powers of the state aligned and arrayed against her.  As singer Speech (from Arrested Development) mentions, such a trial could break a person, and certainly it could change their view on God.

Crime After Crime points out that our justice system is broken, but it also points to the fact that we still long for a sense of justice.  We have a sense pretty early on of what’s fair and what’s not, like a dream written onto our hearts. We know there’s something like justice, but we can’t seem to get there.  Just like we have a love/hate relationship with the law. We are fascinated by its machinations. The practice of law rarely makes sense, yet we are slaves to it; which is why we’re left in admiration for the Team Deborah Peaglers of the world and their strength of conviction to fight for justice.

With over 120,000 woman imprisoned in the California prison system, frighteningly few of them have been freed since the new law went into effect (not to mention that California is the only state with such a law).  But the most shocking statistic is that 80% of them are survivors of domestic violence, rape, or abuse. There could be thousands of Debbies.

Crime After Crime has numerous twists and turns (mostly obstacles) of the legal system as it explores the story of hope and perseverance of Deborah Peagler.  One that oddly turns on Arnold Schwarzenegger.   Director, Yoav Potash, never conceals his moral outrage over the situation, which played nicely against the dignified presence of Deborah Peagler and her nearly stoic lawyers. Gut-wrenching and inspiring, the movie grabs you by the hand and drags you perilously close to the darkness of humanity’s heart and then reminds you that there is love and hope in the world.