Review: Crime After Crime

In the director’s skillful handling, it not only makes for riveting cinematic drama, but for first-rate muckraking.

Crime After Crime
Photo: Life Sentence Films

With the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Brown v. Plata that California’s overcrowded prisons violate the inmates’ constitutional rights, public attention has turned to the colossal failures of the nation’s justice system. The now 40-year old “war on drugs,” the willful blindness to a defendant’s mitigating circumstances, and a general attitude that the solution to crime is to lock ‘em up have led to unprecedented numbers of incarcerated individuals, disproportionately African-American and many of whom wouldn’t have been considered criminals in the 1960s. This sense of outrage over a failed justice system informs every minute of Yoav Potash’s Crime After Crime, a riveting documentation of the eight-year process to free sexual-abuse victim and convicted murderer Debbie Peagler after a 2002 California state law allowed for the reopening of cases in which crimes were triggered by domestic abuse. Although Peagler’s relentless pro bono attorneys, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, hold out a seemingly quixotic hope that justice can be affected, as the years go by and a corrupt system continually rejects their claims, the film seems to be as much about the disconnect between a law’s existence and its application as it is about the tenacity of Peagler and her allies.

After recounting the prisoner’s horrific backstory—forced into prostitution by her lover, she was repeatedly beaten and bullwhipped by that man before a pair of Peagler’s gangland acquaintances killed him—and the farce of a trial in which the alleged murderous mastermind was sentenced to 25 years to life, the film tells the story of Peagler’s march to (very partial) justice, largely through the words of the players themselves. Drawing on talking-head testimony of not only Peagler (shot against the cold gray of a prison wall) and her attorneys, but family members of both the prisoner and her victim, the film presents a portrait of the incarcerated woman as a determined, optimistic individual who profited from her jail time by helping others to educate themselves; of her lawyers as stubborn advocates for justice; and of the legal system as an inherent farce. As the details of the case emerge in the course of Costa and Safran’s investigation, we encounter a willfully blind Los Angeles County D.A.’s office, more interested in saving its ass (and prepping for the villainous Steve Cooley’s run at state Attorney General) than admitting any kind of wrongdoing. That misconduct includes intentionally ignoring overwhelming evidence of physical and sexual abuse during the trial, relying on a sole witness that prosecutors knew to be perjuring himself, and spinning the case as a murder-for-insurance-money narrative, despite knowing this to be false. Furthermore, as the film makes clear, it’s not at all certain how large a role Peagler actually had in the killing of her brutalizing boyfriend. At any rate, experts agree her crime merits far less jail time than the two-plus decades she’s already served.

None of which matters much when faced with a stunningly corrupt system. Yes, Potash’s film is one more iteration of the (mostly) innocent victim and her courageous allies versus a powerful behemoth narrative, but in the director’s skillful handling, it not only makes for riveting cinematic drama (all the more impressive given that it relies so heavily on recounted words rather than illustrated actions), but for first-rate muckraking. Occasionally Potash strains too hard to heroicize Costa and Safran, via obligatory, if brief, backstories that play too much on their role as parents for easy audience identification, but there’s little doubt that their efforts are generally heroic. Those craving a nuanced, ambiguous crime story will have to direct their attention elsewhere, but viewers outraged—or prepared to be outraged—at the injustice of our legal system need look no further for their prison-state exposé than Potash’s startling film. And, as the bumper sticker says, if you’re not outraged…

 Cast: Debbie Peagler, Nadia Costa, Joshua Safran  Director: Yoav Potash  Distributor: Life Sentence Films  Running Time: 93 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2011  Buy: Video

Andrew Schenker

Andrew Schenker is an essayist and critic living in upstate New York. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, The Village Voice, Artforum, Bookforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and others.

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