Directed by: Yoav Potash
I enjoy trashing messy, big budget action movies like the ones Michael Bay puts out, or bad major studio films from directors who get paid a lot of money for what they do. I do not enjoy trashing movies made by the blood, sweat, and tears of newbie filmmakers who hit the pavement day after day to find organizations willing to throw enough pocket change to fund their film and spend many years and sleepless nights putting their labor of love together. For one, I open myself up to the criticism of, “I didn’t see you making a fucking movie.” Cheap shot, I know, but its one critique I have often heard before. For another, the entire filmmaking process from conception to sale is an indescribably difficult process for any filmmaker. Not that my reviews are widely, if ever, read, but a negative review on the internet makes a bigger impact on these smaller films, which depend more on good word of mouth to even register on the public’s peripheral vision, than the bigger studio films. Finally, when the film you are reviewing also happens to be one that is trying to educate you about something, I am even more reluctant to criticize the film, and am willing to give the film far more leeway in the interest of recognizing the filmmaker’s effort to make us aware of an important social or political issue.
With this in mind, it took me far longer than the 2 milliseconds it normally takes me to decide a Michael Bay movie blows to determine that, despite its important message and the compelling journey Deborah Peagler endured to get out of prison, Crime After Crime is an underwhelming account of that journey. Crime After Crime was a widely acclaimed film that earned a place at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 (no small feat), and garnered 25 major awards (Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, The National Board of Review’s Freedom of Expression Award, the Hillman Prize for Broadcast Journalism, and a New York Times Critics’ Pick). Bay Area filmmaker, Yoav Potash, took over 5 years to put this documentary together with support from the Sundance Documentary Fund, the San Francisco Foundation, the Bay Area Video Coalition, and Netflix, among others. The cherry on top was broadcast and home video distribution by none other than the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Crime After Crime is about the case of Deborah Peagler, a woman from South Central Los Angeles who was wrongly convicted to serve 25 years to life in prison for the murder of her abusive pimp boyfriend, Oliver Wilson. 20 years after her incarceration, two rookie land use law attorneys who knew nothing about criminal law, decided to represent Deborah pro bono, and get her out of prison. Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa, the two unlikely attorneys who took on Deborah’s case, pulled off the near hopeless task of finding long-lost witnesses, smoking gun evidence purposely withheld from public view, and uncovering corruption at the highest levels of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office.
We love stories about those who get wrongfully imprisoned by the criminal justice system for something they did not do. These stories draw audiences in because they are about the blameless underdog, the Davids who stand up to the Goliaths (the corrupt prosecutors, stone-faced judges, and ignorant juries) and face seemingly insurmountable odds. Films such as The Shawshank Redemption, In the Name of the Father, and A Thin Blue Line exemplify this. Crime After Crime provides an interesting wrinkle to these types of stories in that Deborah Peagler was not entirely blameless. On May 27, 2982, she did, in fact, lead Oliver Wilson, the father of her daughter, to a park in Los Angeles, where two Crip gang members beat Wilson to death. In short, despite how cruel and abusive Oliver Wilson had been to Deborah, and how deserving he probably was of an ass beating, Deborah technically committed a crime under the laws of this country.
This film goes beyond simply asking whether Deborah Peagler served her “debt to society,” because there is absolutely no doubt that she did. Under the Penal Code section and sentencing laws applicable to her crime, Deborah should have only served a maximum of 6 years! The more important question posed by this film is whether Deborah even deserved to have been imprisoned for what she had done. For that, I am going to provide you with a very brief legal background on how victims of domestic abuse are treated under the law.
In 2002, California became the first state to allow battered women convicted of killing their batterers to petition to the court what is called a “writ of habeas corpus,” containing evidence proving that the battering led to the killing. With this petition and their evidence, convicted women could now seek a whole new trial, to reduce their sentence, or try to get some other type of remedy. Because most of these women did not know the law, understand the legal process, or have an attorney, the California Habeas Project was formed to recruit and train volunteer attorneys to help these women file their petitions. This is how the two lawyers in Crime After Crime became involved in Deborah’s case.
Within the first few minutes of seeing Deborah, you immediately sympathize with her. One would expect to encounter an angry, hateful individual pissed at the world for imprisoning her far beyond the number of years required for her crime. After all, here is someone who was (1) regularly beaten and made to become a prostitute by her boyfriend; (2) sentenced to serve more years in prison than what is allowed under the sentencing laws; (3) improperly/illegally prosecuted by a corrupt and powerful Los Angeles D.A.’s office that refused to acknowledge its wrongdoing; and (4) became diagnosed with terminal lung cancer while in prison. Instead, we see someone whose glass is always half-full. Deborah is a survivor and she has transformed her unfortunate circumstance into opportunities to educate herself (she earned two Associate degrees while in prison), and to help others (she has helped many women in prison to read and write). She is a remarkable woman who exudes a strong maternal quality, and who holds a strong belief in God. In getting to know Deborah and her family, you cannot help but imagine what it would be like if your own mother was improperly imprisoned for 26 years, and your entire childhood interaction with her consisted of sporadic, brief meet-ups at the prison.
Deborah’s story is not unique. There are thousands of women who were imprisoned under the same exact circumstances as her. Many of us may have already heard or read similar stories. However, how many cases have you heard of in which someone has managed to receive parole with the help of attorneys who know nothing of criminal law, and after being repeatedly rejected by the parole board and the courts? As an attorney, I can attest to the difficulty of what attorneys Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa were able to accomplish. The result with which Safran and Costa got for Deborah is something that most times is only seen in the movies. Their success is all the more impressive when you consider the fact that they worked with Deborah for 7 years without receiving any monetary compensation and in addition to meeting the various obligations of their regular day jobs. Any attorney looking for a dose of inspiration or motivation should look no further than this film.
Adding yet an additional layer of interest to Deborah Peagler’s story is the corruption and secrecy committed by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office relating to her case. The city of Los Angeles has always been saddled with a reputation of having corrupt politicians and police officers (e.g. the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating, the recent revelations in the city of Bell, etc.), all of which has been memorialized in such films as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Here, for reasons not fully explored in the film, the D.A.’s office managed to convict Deborah through the use of an unreliable witness and the suppression of evidence. In internal correspondence that were kept secret during Deborah’s trial, even the D.A.’s office admitted that the evidence against Deborah was unreliable. And yet, they were still willing and able to get the court to impose a 25-to-life sentence on her.
The underlying story of Deborah Peagler and her legal journey to freedom is a compelling and inspirational story that has a nice mix of drama, hope, and suspense. Unfortunately, Crime After Crime does not fully explore the various facets of this story on the same scale as a filmmaker like Errol Morris has done with this same subject matter. On a general note, the tone and structure of this film comes off feeling more like something made specifically for instructional use in schools and other institutions rather than a film intended to be shown theatrically. Its progression from Deborah’s story, to the lawyers involved, and finally to the revelations concerning the D.A.’s office is too cleanly outlined as if I was watching an episode of Unsolved Mysteries (sorry for dating myself there with that reference). There is a general lack of spontaneity that the film sorely needed.
Throughout the film, I always felt that filmmaker Yoav Potash was either somehow restrained from delving deeper into his subject matter or he just simply chose not to take that next step to better illuminate the facts and characters of the story. For example, I never got a good sense of what Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa were about. Sure, we learn how Safran’s Orthodox Jewish belief guides him to help those in need, and we learn that Costa had a painful experience in her past that helped her relate to Deborah’s situation. However, I felt there was even more to explore in terms of what these attorney’s lives were like in balancing their family life with their day jobs and their work on Deborah’s case. Related to this was the work of the late investigator, Bobby Buechler. This man has a very interesting background that is never touched upon. It may have been that Buechler wanted to keep his contacts and investigative methods a secret, but I think there was a huge missed opportunity by not spending some time with him and how he obtained his evidence to support Deborah’s case.
Most disappointing is how little the film digs into the levels of corruption at the L.A. District Attorney’s office. Much of this may and probably was due to the lack of resources and access to delve more into this issue, and the risk that Deborah’s case may have been jeopardized if filmmaker Potash decided to pull a Michael Moore on the D.A.’s office. Nevertheless, aside from two moments in which Potash confronts Deputy D.A. Lael Rubin and D.A. Steve Cooley about Deborah’s case, the film just scratches the surface of the corrupt workings of the D.A.’s office.
Crime After Crime is an illuminating account of how dysfunctional our criminal justice system is. Having the facts and law be on your side does not necessarily mean you will gain justice for your client, and this film shows how depressingly common this is in American society. Despite the film’s shortcomings, Crime After Crime is still one that should be watched by not just attorneys and advocates of victims of domestic abuse, but by everyone. Like me, you will probably be shocked to learn that the vast majority of women in prison are there because they killed their partners in response to being abused and battered by them. How California remains the only state to address this problem with its laws (which it only addressed recently in 2002) is just as perplexing as the parole board and District Attorney’s office’s refusal to acknowledge this problem.