Starting in 1975, Debbie Peagler was prostituted, controlled, and repeatedly beaten by Oliver Wilson. Eight years later, she finally managed to escape from him, by convincing two gang members to kill him.
In 1984, nine-year-old Joshua Safran witnessed his mother horribly beaten by her husband.
Eighteen years later, in 2002, Safran– an Orthodox Jew and a lawyer–agrees to represent Peagler. She has been in jail since 1983, and although she is eligible for parole, she is unable to get a hearing. Negligence, mismanagement, and blatant violations of Peagler’s legal rights have been committed by the Oakland D.A.’s office, according to Safran and Peagler.
The new documentary Crime after Crime, directed by Yoav Potash, chronicles Peagler and Safran’s attempts to secure her release from prison. “If she’d been charged appropriately, she would have served a maximum of six years,” Safran said. “By the time we took her case, she’d been in prison for 20 years.”
The film–which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, was purchased by the Oprah Winfrey Network, and begins showing in film festivals this month–is a harrowing, intense story of justice denied. But at least as intense is the other story, of a bond between a man who was able to break the cycle of violence, and his struggle to help one woman who wasn’t.