For the first few minutes of “Crime after Crime”, I began to lose interest because the documentary lacked the kind of flair found in better-funded works directed by veteran filmmakers like Michael Moore or Charles Ferguson. To describe it as prosaic would be the understatement of the year.
Eventually I learned that the director Yoav Potash’s first experience in movie making was as the legal videographer for a couple of pro bono lawyers who were trying to secure the release of Deborah Peagler, an African-American woman sentenced to life in prison for first degree murder of her husband, a pimp who used to beat her with a bullwhip. They were trying to reopen the case since the original trial had not taken domestic violence into account.
In 2002, the law had been changed to provide for such extenuating circumstances and Peagler was just one of many cases that public defenders had been assigned to. Potash’s role was simply one of recording the interviews so his role was more or less the same as a passport photographer. To draw an analogy, the net effect of seeing Peagler’s story on film is like looking at what amounted to one of Dorothea Lange’s greatest photographs but one taken by a complete amateur.
Potash’s footage eventually became the foundation for “Crime after Crime”, a film that will leave you emotionally drained despite its modest means, a victory of substance over style. In an epoch of Hollywood fiction film degeneration, we are reminded that in all great art—including documentary film—character is essential. By making this a story about Deborah Peagler, a Jean Valjean of our time, and her tireless attorneys, Potash demonstrates once again that documentary succeeds when it takes on a subject that all people of conscience would care about. As opposed to the miserable escapism of the latest multimillion-dollar garbage heap out of Hollywood, this is a great story of good and evil. As symbols of evil, it would be difficult to find more loathsome examples than the District Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, foremost among them District Attorney Steve Cooley and Assistant DA Lael Rubin, infamous for her role in the McMartin daycare “repressed memory” miscarriage of justice.
Deborah Peagler was 15 years old when she met Oliver Wilson, a handsome and charismatic 23 year old that made his living as a pimp and drug dealer. After consummating his relationship with her, Wilson took her to the front of a donut shop in L.A. and ordered her to start selling her body. Like all pimps, he used a combination of violence and paternalism to keep Deborah in line. After the violence grew to much for her to bear (one relative interviewed in the film says that Wilson would beat her like he would a man), she appealed to her mother for help. Her mother lined up a couple of Crips gang members who ambushed Wilson and strangled him to death.
The DA offered her a deal. If she pleads guilty to murder, she would get a 25 year to life sentence otherwise she faced the death penalty if found guilty.
Peagler’s pro bono attorneys were Joshua Safran, an observant Orthodox Jew and Nadia Costa, an ultra-marathon runner, a perfect preparation for a legal battle that took years.
Without giving away too much on this utterly transformational documentary, it is a searing indictment of the American legal system. The monstrous refusal of the DA’s office to allow an African-American female prisoner to go free after more than 20 years, even after acknowledging her status as a battered wife is enough to make you scream.
Fortunately, there are better ways to express your outrage. The film’s website has a Get Involved page that lists a number of ways to help battered women. The film’s closing credits mentions that 80 percent of the women behind bars have been battered so clearly we are dealing with a social problem of widespread dimensions.
The film opened Friday at the IFC Center in New York and will make appearances around the country in major cities (screening information is here).