It’s hard to imagine a bigger bombshell being dropped in the lap of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office than “Crime After Crime,” which uses the heartbreaking case of Deborah Peagler to indict a city’s entire justice system and the sullied careers it apparently perpetuates. Although helmer Yoav Potash’s approach is low-key and only vaguely cinematic, each instance of judicial malfeasance — and there are many — is allowed to toll loudly in its own moral echo chamber. Potash won’t win any prizes for style, but his story’s incendiary content should provide propulsion, possibly toward theatrical play, certainly toward news-oriented TV.
“Crime After Crime” doesn’t break the news of Deborah Peagler; her strange, winding case within a Kafka-esque maze of jurisprudence has been covered extensively, notably by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. But Potash’s initial investigative work was the inspiration for that coverage, and the cumulative effect of all the questionable details and scurrilous tactics make for a righteous-indignation-generating case study of wasted tax dollars and ruthless careerism.
No one disputes that Peagler was in the vicinity on that 1982 night when two members of the Crips murdered her abusive “boyfriend,” Oliver Wilson, whom Peagler says forced her into prostitution at the age of 15 and molested her daughter. But even District Attorney Steve Cooley’s office (in memos uncovered by Peagler’s dedicated attorneys, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran) concedes that Peagler was coerced into a guilty plea via a nonexistent threat of capital punishment; that a key witness against her perjured himself; and that Peagler’s case was of precisely the type addressed by a 2002 California law allowing the reconsideration of cases involving battered women. Peagler got no reconsideration until the intercession of Safran and Costa, which came after Peagler had served 20 years of a 25-to-life sentence.
By filming an installment of the PBS program “Life on the Inside,” which featured the prison gospel choir Peagler led at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, Potash gained access he wouldn’t otherwise have been allowed. What he found was a subject who personifies Sisyphean persistence: She doesn’t plead innocence, and she’s certainly penitent about her role in a crime at which she wasn’t actually present, though this failed to sway the parole board during several reviews of Peagler’s incarceration. The intransigence of the district attorney’s office might have, but hasn’t, crushed her spirit.
While Potash does not dwell on the racial aspect of Peagler’s case — she is African-American — it seems unavoidable, especially given the tortured efforts of the authorities to keep her locked up. The perception that some humanity is disposable, and an unwillingness to admit mistakes or even address them (notably by Lael Rubin, who was involved in the McMartin preschool debacle of the ’80s and remained an L.A. prosecutor) are among the indelible stains of the Peagler case.
The heroes of the story, of course, are Costa and Safran, who get involved out of a sense of moral outrage, devote eight years to the case and persist in part due to the profound connection they develop with the defendant. While they exhibit very little overt rancor in “Crime After Crime,” the film’s viewers are unlikely to share the same generosity.
Jaymee Carpenter’s music is exemplary, and other production values are adequate.