On Thursday, parole was granted to a 49-year-old, woman inmate named Deborah Peagler. She has served 26 years of a 25-to-life sentence for her involvement in the 1982 murder of her abusive boyfriend, Oliver Wilson, a pimp and drug dealer. Peagler was one of a short list of California women prisoners who have been fiercely championed by battered women’s advocacy groups.
Peagler’s parole was actually granted last month but her case was closely watched by advocates who worried that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would oppose her release. This summer Schwarzengger blocked the parole of two other high profile battered women serving life for murder.
Jack Leonard, of the LA Times has been following the story. Here’s a clip today’s article:
Peagler’s lawyers argued that Wilson, 23, forced her into prostitution, beat her with a bullwhip and, a few days before he was killed, took her to a motel and repeatedly raped her. Peagler also accused prosecutors of using false testimony against her during a key court hearing before she pleaded guilty to murder.
Since her conviction, California has allowed defendants convicted of a violent felony to win reduced sentences if they can show that domestic abuse and its effects led to the crime.
In 2005, Peagler’s attorneys asked the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office to reconsider her case. A top district attorney’s official agreed that it would be in the “interests of justice” to allow Peagler to plead to a lesser charge that would have resulted in her immediate release, but the office later withdrew its offer.
The reversal touched off a bitter and public dispute with Peagler’s attorneys at the law firm Bingham McCutchen LLP, who worked for free on her case.
Prosecutors accused Peagler of providing inconsistent accounts over the years about the extent of her abuse and whether she knew that the two men intended to kill Wilson. Prosecutors also contend that Peagler had several reasons to arrange Wilson’s death, including jealousy of his new girlfriend and a desire to cash in on his life insurance.
According to the website set up to advocate for her freedom, Peagler has made constructive use of her time in prison.
While incarcerated, Deborah has had an exemplary record. She has earned an associate’s degree, worked in an electronics manufacturing plant, graduated from a battered women’s support group, and mentored many women on the inside. She has done her best to parent her two daughters, who she rarely gets a chance to see or speak with.
Digging a bit deeper, I found that the back story to Peagler’s case is both fascinating and devastating. According to her attorneys, she was 15-years old and already the mother of a baby daughter when she met Wilson. In other words, she was a child with a child.
Wilson was reportedly charming, took the pretty South LA girl out on dates and was fatherly with Peagler’s own little girl. But after a while, Wilson allegedly wanted a little payback, so he pushed for Peagler to turn tricks. When she recoiled, the abuse began, and then grew worse. And worse. At times she reportedly tried to run away, but he brought her back by force. He reportedly forced her to play Russian Roulette for his amusement. He whipped her with a bull whip. He told her she was nothing. [Some of the details are here.]
According to Peagler’s advocates, it was when she learned that Wilson was molesting her then-6-year old daughter, that she turned to two men she knew and asked them to do something to help her get away. Prosecutors say she lured Wilson to a park where there was a fight, at the end of which time Wilson was dead. When the killing took place, Peagler was not present.
Although Peagler denied she had planned Wilson’s murder, her attorney told her that had better take a deal or otherwise she would face the death penalty. Yet the threat that got the 22-year-old Peagler to agree to a life sentence, appears to have been entirely false—according to an internal memo that circulated inside the DA’s office.
According to what is revealed in the memo, what the D.A.s office did not tell Peagler or her attorney is that the “witness” they supposedly had against her, a man that they told her attorney could prove she planned Wilson’s death, had already been shown to be a perjurer at the preliminary hearing. Even the prosecutors themselves knew that he would not be credible should the case come to trial. Furthermore, the man stood to gain by his testimony. In addition, according to the memo, there were other witnesses whose testimony supported Peagler’s account. Thus DA had, in fact, zero hard evidence to support the filing of special circumstances, as the 1983 internal memo shows rather starkly.
But Peagler was young, terrified, and had a history of emotional abuse and physical battering. So when her attorney told her that she had to take a deal or risk being executed, she did what he asked.
Thus Debbie Peagler went to prison for life—which is where she stayed for the next 21 years, without hope of ever getting out.
Then in January 1, 2002, an amazing thing happened. A new law was enacted that made California the first state in the nation to permit a battered woman convicted of killing her batterer to file a writ of habeas corpus with evidence demonstrating how the battering and its effects led to the killing. Shortly thereafter, the California Habeas Project interviewed Deborah Peagler and determined that she might be eligible for sentence mitigation using the new law.
A young junior attorney named Nadia Costa volunteered to take on one of the Habeas Project cases. They gave her Deborah Peagler.
“I thought I’d file something quickly and then we would go away, said Costa when I spoke to her on Friday afternoon. Costa and Joshua Safran, another attorney from the San Francisco offices of Bingham McCutchen LLP, where Costa worked, began researching Peagler’s abuse. The stories she told were frankly so horrendous, Costa said, that “we doubted their validity.”
The “quick filing” turned into 2 1/2 years of interviews with people who had known Peagler and Wilson in South Los Angeles. “He was very public in the way he abused her,” said Costa, “so there were a lot of people who remembered.” Appalled at the extravagant brutality and duration of abuse that Peagler had endured, Costa, who was in on all of the interviews, became personally committed to getting Deborah Peagler released. In all, Costa and Safran found 12 witness who gave written declarations that detailed years of hideous mistreatment—-both emotional and physical.
In 2005 it looked like a release might actually occur. Costa and Safran and some of Bingham’s other attorneys met with Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and Chief Deputy DA Curt Livesay, the original prosecutor on the case. According to Costa, the men said they would conduct an “extensive review” of Peagler’s file.
Livesay and Cooley returned with the determination that Peagler could re-plead to voluntary manslaughter â€” not first-degree murder, which meant that she had long ago served her maximum sentence. Cooley’s office drew up a written deal to obtain Deborah’s immediate release from prison.
The Bingham lawyers and their client were overjoyed. “Even the other inmates and the correctional officers, even the warden was happy for her,” said Costa. But the happiness was short lived.
In April of 2005, the D.A’s office changed its mind. Cooley withdrew the offer. Although the prosecutors offered some very vague explanation about how they now realized belatedly that Peagler had other motives for murder—that she had done it for $17,000 in insurance money, and that she was jealous about a new girlfriend.
Peagler’s attorneys found the excuse curiously unpersuasive since these were old accusations from the old file. Why, they wondered, if they believed Peagler to be so guilty, had DA Cooley and original prosecutor Livesay agreed to a written deal? Were they really that clueless? Or did the mind change have more to do with a vicious case of internal politics and an unwillingness to admit they made a mistake with heartbreaking consequences?
The prisoners and staff that had shared in Peagler’s victory were stunned at the reversal. Yet it was Peagler who worked to raise the spirits of her supporters, not the other way around. “She’s such a nurturing person,” said Costa. “She wound up comforting everyone else. She’s one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known.”
As it turned out, the reversal was a foolish miscalculation on the part of the DA’s office. “I think they thought we would go away,” said Costa. But Cost, Safran and the firm did not go away. The lawyers kept working, although at times the chances of victory seemed bleak.
It wasn’t long before they found the damning internal memo from the DA’s office that revealed the lie behind Peagler’s coerced deal. (The 1983 memo can be found here. So explain to me again why this memo doesn’t open the door to charges of prosecutorial misconduct?)
Fueled by hope and outrage, the attorneys continued to work. And work. (Costa estimates that during many months of the year, Peagler’s case took up 35% of her time.) In April of 2008, they won an encouraging victory when a Los Angeles judge removed the entire LA District Attorney’s office from the case and order the state attorney general to handle Peagler’s appeal instead. (Here is the judge’s ruling.)
Finally, after a total six and a half years and a more than a million dollars worth of pro bono legal time, the needed breakthrough occurred when the attorneys persuaded the parole board to recommend Peagler’s release. Yet there was one more hurdle after that. If the governor chose to block her release, he could do it with the stroke of a pen and everyone would have to go back to square one. For nearly a month Peagler and the Bingham attorneys held their collective breaths.
On Thursday, August 20—Just before his deadline for rejecting parole—-Governor Schwarzenegger indicated he would not to block the board’s decision.
This means that Peagler will soon be rejoining her daughters from whom she has been separated for more than a quarter century.
It had taken nearly seven years, but they had won.
There is, however, one tragic catch to what is otherwise a happy ending to Peagler’s harrowing story.
In February of 2009, Deborah Peagler was diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of lung cancer. She is not expected to live out the year.