ORINDA -- What do a devout Christian woman, incarcerated for 24 years for the murder of her common law husband, and two land use attorneys -- one an Orthodox Jew from Oakland and the other a lawyer from Orinda adhering to no organized religion -- have in common?
Sadly, each is a victim of domestic violence.
Joyfully, exultantly, importantly, Deborah Peagler, Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa are the victorious subjects of "Crime After Crime," a 2011 Sundance Film Festival selection documentary. The film was presented by the Concord-based STAND! For Families Free of Violence at the Orinda Public Library auditorium on Oct. 2; Safran and Costa participated in a Q-&-A session moderated by news anchor Cheryl Jennings.
The documentary chronicles three stories. Foremost is the young Peagler's tale, introduced in the film's opening with photographs and family testimonies. Peagler is a sincere, intelligent 15-year-old African-American girl caught in the viselike grip of first love with the charismatic Oliver Wilson. He beats, pimps and threatens her, then fathers her first child. She calls the police, moves in with her mother, returns. She is the classic domestic abuse victim.
Her mother asks two men with gang affiliations to protect her daughter from Wilson; instead, they strangle him. Peagler is implicated by one of the killers, and threatened by prosecutors with the death sentence. She pleads guilty in order to receive the lesser sentence of prison for life.
But Peagler is also the soulful, gospel-singing inmate, 24 years later, in scenes filmed by director Yoav Potash at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla. Against all odds, she is a font of discipline and mentorship, supervising fellow inmates at their work and in their faith lives with sincere love and constant compassion.
The film's third story begins, improbably, with two young lawyers at the Walnut Creek office of Bingham McCutchen LLP, hired to handle Preager's case.
Together, they bumble determinedly through the complexities of the Preager case, brought to their firm by Olivia Wang of the California Habeas Project, which works to free from prison survivors of domestic violence incarcerated for crimes related to that abuse.
This pro-bono case is something new for two lawyers who usually handle land-use issues. At first given $5,000 and six months by their firm to work on the case, Costa's and Safran's journey ultimately takes over seven years and $250,000 to win.
Their efforts wrap around a 2002 California law allowing incarcerated survivors of domestic abuse to seek freedom by petitioning the courts with evidence they had been battered. Bobby Buechler, the gritty private investigator they hire, immediately finds key evidence. Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley decides the new evidence they present (a coerced plea, false testimony from a witness, lack of expert testimony on battering) warrants the lesser sentence of voluntary manslaughter, and that Peagler should be released. Office politics erupt, Cooley reneges, Peagler is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and a smoking "alibi memo" fuels what all fear is their one last appeal. After then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger allows a new ruling to stand, Peagler comes to freedom in a Denny's parking lot. She lives for 10 more months in the embrace of her family, Wilson's sisters, and her lawyers.
Costa, a Las Lomas High School grad, grew up in Walnut Creek and said she suffered abuse administered by "someone close." Her discomfort with the admission is visceral, and she explained the urgency she experienced while working on the Peagler case.
"Land use issues can be emotional, but I can go home and know I'll deal with it the next day. With this, my client was waiting for me in prison, waiting for life. I don't think there'll ever be another case like Debbie's," she said.
Safran recalled the shame he felt as a 9-year old, when a man his mother was involved with beat her and he stood by, silent. "Judaism teaches we are to free those who are bound," he said. The anger he felt then has been redirected into legal advocacy, he claimed, saying, "We were a ramshackle group trying to fix something. I'm proud of being an attorney."
STAND! Chief Executive Officer Gloria Sandoval said one of every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. The film gives her organization entry into communities where the prevailing -- and false -- assumption says, "It's horrible, but it doesn't happen here."