Sunday, August 7, 2011

Crime After Crime

When The State Commits A Crime Against A Criminal

From left: Attorneys Marisa González and Joshua Safran, Natasha Walker, daughter of Deborah Peagler, attorney
Nadia Costa and filmmaker Yoav Potash in San Francisco in April.  All appear in Mr. Potash's "Crime After Crime".
Omar P.L. Moore

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
day, August 7, 2011

The Central California Women's Facility is the largest women's prison in the U.S., we're told at the start of "Crime After Crime", a powerful documentary by Yoav Potash now playing in select cities.  Deborah Peagler had ties to the 1980s murder of her abusive husband Oliver Walker.  Convicted of first degree murder, Ms. Peagler should have served six years, had evidence of her partner's long history of violence and abuse against her been disclosed to the judge. 

The history wasn't disclosed.  Ms. Peagler had spent 20 years behind bars by the time Northern California Bay Area attorneys Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran took her case in 2002.  The legal fight to free Deborah Peagler -- and the fight to keep her behind bars -- raged on and on and on, and Mr. Potash's extraordinary, moving and inspiring documentary tells the painful story of Ms. Peagler's 28-year-odyssey in California's criminal justice system. 

An award-winner at Sundance and the San Francisco International film festivals this year, "Crime After Crime" chronicles the self-defense crime Ms. Peagler committed and the larger crime California commits against her.  This compelling documentary will leave you outraged, moved but hopeful about humanity.  The film shows that often much-maligned defense attorneys (in such high-profile cases as O.J. Simpson's and Casey Anthony's) are the last line of defense against some in their own profession (namely prosecutors) who frequently cut corners, often withhold exculpatory evidence or do other illegal things, such as engage in misconduct, to achieve a desired result, destroying lives beyond those already destroyed in the process. 

Mr. Potash takes on an incredible amount in a very detailed though short film.  Mr. Safran simplifies things in layman's terms.  Amidst horrific setbacks Ms. Peagler stays focused, as does this ambitious film, which shows the engaging Mr. Safran and the conscientious Ms. Costa not as removed, stock-figured white attorneys leaping to the aid of a black woman in distress but as genuine family to Ms. Peagler.  We get to know the totality of these dedicated lawyers, their lives, their pasts and personal things that tie them to Ms. Peagler and her cause in deeper ways than we might imagine.  This case truly affects them, and their feelings aren't staged, even if a few of the film's episodes look as if they are.

Above all we see Deborah Peagler and her incredible patience, courage and grace.  "Crime After Crime" is highly thought-provoking in many ways, and actually captures three crimes: the violence against Ms. Peagler, her participation in an act of murder, and the state's violation of many years of Ms. Peagler's life.  What you see is the strength of Ms. Peagler's genuine, heartfelt character, and I was completely absorbed. 

In earlier days I worked on both prosecution and defense teams, either as an intern or as an attorney and what was sometimes learned or glimpsed was not pretty.  I worked with and knew of people in Ms. Peagler's predicament, but serving time for crimes they didn't commit, which the public who didn't know them, felt sure that they did.  When the truth emerged people were so exhausted and oversaturated that many just didn't care anymore.  They had long since moved on with their own lives.  I don't know how Ms. Peagler felt but I understand the frustration and the disconnect between the public's notions of justice and the inmate's notion of injustice.  Never the twain do these two ever meet.

For me the center of this film is Natasha Wilson, the daughter of Deborah Peagler and Oliver Wilson.  We see a young woman torn, and the journey for her is a complex and bitter-sweet experience.  Her attitude throughout is remarkable given everything she's been through.  The director gives "Crime After Crime" some much-needed levity with his shenanigans, as does a private investigator hired to help Ms. Peagler.  The final images in the end credits undoes this levity with what looks like poetic coincidence that a fiction film simply couldn't replicate believably.

Mr. Potash's documentary reminds me of David Fincher's "Zodiac" in that multiple lives are consumed and affected by decades of turmoil, investigation and setbacks.  Both films measure multiple crimes.  Both films are fact-based.  Both involve crimes in Northern or Southern California.  One involves police agencies in Northern California who after 30-plus years never caught up to a serial killer.  The other involves Northern California attorneys who dedicate sizable parts of their lives to battling the state of California on behalf of a very brave inmate.  Both films are meticulous in their exposition and exhaustive procedure.

"Crime After Crime" doesn't solve a crime or right a wrong like "The Thin Blue Line" but nonetheless looks at a broken legal system and the politics that infect it and chronicles a fighter who never gives in during the toughest of times.

I can't recall a documentary in the last ten years that so resoundingly trumpets justice and compassion as "Crime After Crime" does.  It's one of the year's best films, and absolutely necessary viewing.

"Crime After Crime" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America, though there are some written and verbal descriptions that are sexually graphic and may be distressing.  The film's running time is one hour and 32 minutes.

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