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Dispute in D.A.'s Office Blocks Inmate's Release

Cooley said a battered woman should go free after 23 years in prison. Her lawyers have filed a claim over revocation of the agreement.

April 02, 2006|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

Deborah Peagler thought she would be home for Christmas.

Eight months ago, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Peagler should be freed from the life prison term she has been serving for 23 years for helping to kill her live-in boyfriend in an Inglewood park.

Cooley said then that he believed Peagler, 46, had been a battered woman. That was not considered in 1983 when she pleaded guilty to first-degree murder to avoid a death sentence.

In "the interests of justice," Curt Livesay, then Cooley's second in command, wrote Peagler's lawyers in July, Cooley would offer a voluntary manslaughter charge and support her release from prison.

Then Cooley changed his mind. His offer had set off a political battle in his office, according to court filings, with top-level deputy prosecutors saying they should have been consulted.

That internal strife in the district attorney's office has kept Peagler in prison, her lawyers say.

Cooley withdrew his offer in September, accommodating the deputy prosecutors who fought his decision, according to court filings and interviews.

Senior deputies then told Peagler's lawyers not to mention the deal in their written filings seeking Peagler's release, according to court records; they complied.

Unaware of the withdrawn deal, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Wesley on Dec. 13 denied Peagler's petition for a writ of habeas corpus, the legal instrument for freeing wrongly imprisoned inmates.

District attorney spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said Cooley and other officials in his office could not comment because Peagler's lawyers have filed a civil claim against Los Angeles County, a precursor to a lawsuit, over revocation of the offer. But she said the internal dispute isn't the only issue, adding that some prosecutors do not believe Peagler was battered.

"I don't really know what the problem is in the district attorney's office, but it can't justify leaving her to rot in there," said Joshua Safran, one of Peagler's lawyers.

Peagler, who is in the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, was not available for an interview.

*

Deborah Peagler had been with Oliver Wilson for six years when he was killed. They never married, but they had a daughter and lived together in Inglewood.

She claims Wilson had physically and sexually abused her and forced her to work as a prostitute for him before she moved to her mother's home. Four days before he was killed, Oliver Wilson threatened her with a gun at her mother's house, court records show.

The night of May 27, 1982, Peagler asked Wilson to drive her to Alondra Park in Inglewood, where she knew two friends were ready for an ambush.

The men beat Wilson and strangled him with a cord. Police found his body the next day. Both attackers are serving life terms in state prison.

Peagler faced the death penalty because of accusations that she hired the two attackers and cashed in a $17,000 life insurance policy on Wilson, but she was spared by her guilty plea.

*

In January 2002, a new California law allowed abused women convicted of killing their batterers to get out of prison if they could show that the battering and its effects led to the killing.

Peagler, who had joined a battered women's support group in prison years before the law's enactment, came to the attention of advocates, who introduced her to Bay Area-based lawyers from the influential law firm Bingham McCutchen.

The lawyers spent two years amassing what they said was evidence that Wilson "seriously and systematically physically, sexually and psychologically battered" Peagler. Zabrina Mitchell, the slain man's older sister, spoke on Peagler's behalf, saying in a court filing she overheard the beatings in their house.

In the summer, Peagler's lawyers met with Cooley; his veteran second-in-command, Livesay; and Livesay's special assistant, Deputy Dist. Atty. Karla Kerlin.

Safran, the lawyer, said the meeting raised their hopes. Cooley and Livesay "kept using phrases like 'How do we get her out ?' " Safran said.

Two days later, Livesay sent a letter on Cooley's behalf recommending that Peagler's lawyers file a writ of habeas corpus. Livesay also said the district attorney would offer Peagler a plea of one count of voluntary manslaughter and give her credit for the time she'd already served in prison, which would mean she'd be out soon.

The next week, Safran and Nadia Costa visited Peagler in prison and gave her the news. Peagler was overjoyed and told the lawyers she wanted to make it home by Christmas. "I told her she might make it for Thanksgiving," Safran said.

*

Safran and Costa believed they would file a "stipulated petition" in which both sides would state their agreement that Peagler should be released. Legal experts say judges rarely deny such petitions.

But when the lawyers followed up in August, Kerlin told them the deal had set off a turf war, Safran said in a declaration filed with the court.

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