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Crime After Crime documents the almost decadelong effort of two pro bono attorneys and a private investigator to secure the release of Deborah Peagler. In 1983, Peagler was sentenced to 25 years to life in California for her involvement in the murder of Oliver Wilson, her boyfriend and father to one of her daughters. He was also her serial abuser, but her history as a battered woman wasn't taken into account (this was of course before there was any real infrastructure in place for domestic violence survivors). Under a new law enacted in 2002 – and currently unique to California – incarcerated survivors of abuse can petition to have their cases reopened if their abuse wasn't originally allowed as evidence. Peagler's case seems like an obvious candidate for retrial, but what plays out onscreen – a draconian parole board, a jaw-dropping display of prosecutorial misconduct that ultimately leads to the entirety of the Los Angeles District Attorney's office (some 1,000 lawyers) being thrown off the case – would be grounds for farce if it weren't so obviously, achingly a tragedy.
Yoav Potash's films have previously found a home on PBS, and that feels like a better fit, and a more forgiving one, too. Visually flat and drably assembled, Crime After Crime ostensibly aims for a fly-on-the-wall effect, but speakers frequently appear awkwardly aware of the camera's presence. But what Potash does get is tremendous access – he gained entrance to the Central California Women’s Facility, the largest women's prison in the country, by passing himself off as the legal team's official videographer – and through that access we get first-hand, intimate testimonials from Peagler herself. Over the course of the arduous appeal process, we see Peagler age and grow ill, but she never dims. I suspect it's that spirit as much as the injustice of her incarceration that drew so many people to her cause and inspired this labor-of-love documentary about her journey to hell and back.
Filmmaker Yoav Potash will be in attendance for this weekend's evening shows, schedule permitting. See www.violetcrowncinema.com for more info.