In telling the story of Deborah Peagler, a battered woman who spent 26 years in prison, filmmaker Yoav Potash has not dug up an obscure case of injustice. Thanks in part to his years-in-the-making documentary, the California inmate's struggles were well documented in the news media, and the legal crusade to overturn her first-degree murder conviction received ardent support.
"Crime After Crime" brings nothing particularly cinematic to that story — one of horrendous personal abuse, prosecutorial misconduct and seesawing hope and despair. But Potash's closeness to it, and sense of healthy outrage, invigorate the film and make the saga's central participants impossible to forget.
For her indirect involvement in the killing of the man who forced her into prostitution and sexually abused her daughter, Peagler had already spent two decades behind bars when two Bay Area lawyers took up her case. California had just enacted the nation's first law permitting evidence of domestic violence in such cases, and the yin-yang legal duo expected to secure release for Peagler within a few months.
Along with the dogged investigator they enlisted, they spent most of a decade pursuing exoneration.
The director was on hand for five of those years, first as videographer for the attorneys, and then gaining extraordinary access through a project for PBS. Capturing the emotional intensity of advances and setbacks — deals offered and then rescinded by the Los Angeles district attorney, parole repeatedly denied — "Crime After Crime" is a deeply affecting account of the very real effect of political corruption, but also of resilience and grace.
"Crime After Crime." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood; Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.