Bringing to Light a Tale of Domestic Abuse That Led to Wrongful Incarceration for Murder

The risks of not exposing Deborah Peagler’s story – the risk that she would never gain her freedom, the risk that another young person would lose their life to domestic violence or wrongful incarceration — were risks I could not take.

Last Updated: May 4, 2018 @ 12:13 PM

In 2005, I set out to document the saga of Deborah Peagler, for what would eventually become my first full-length feature film, “Crime After Crime,” now playing in theaters and set for broadcast on Oprah’s OWN network in November.

Deborah was a victim of domestic violence sentenced to life behind bars for her role in the murder of her abuser. But Deborah was incarcerated at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California, the largest women’s prison in the United States and one that adheres to a statewide ban prohibiting “face-to-face interviews with specific inmates.”

While I believed that this regulation contradicted the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing both freedom of speech and freedom of the press, challenging the prison’s media rule on Constitutional grounds would likely not have borne fruit within the timeframe of Deborah Peagler’s appeal for the freedom of her person. To overcome an unconstitutional policy it would take an unconventional approach.

After speaking with Deborah’s attorneys, her legal team and I jointly applied for me to become Deborah’s legal videographer, filming depositions of her for possible use in court. In this role, I was embedded as a member of the legal team, complete with suit and tie. It may sound ridiculous, but in effect the prison officials saw me as a lawyer, with a camera, but without a law degree.

While the attorney-client visiting rooms were not completely private — guards kept watch through soundproof windows — the arrangement allowed me to conduct the in-depth interviews featured in “Crime After Crime.”

But this technique had it limitations. I could only film Deborah in the prison’s attorney/client room, and in this capacity was unable to document the activities of Deborah’s daily life at the prison. From speaking with Deborah, however, I knew that these activities were numerous.

She was a church leader and the director of the prison’s gospel choir. She worked in an electronics manufacturing plant inside the prison, having climbed to the highest paying job an inmate could hold. And she participated in education programs, teaching other inmates to read and write while receiving two college degrees herself while behind bars.

In communicating with the public information officers at the prison, I learned that when they did permit members of the media to come in and film inmates “at random,” the prison officials were often disappointed by what they perceived as the media’s tendency to report exclusively on the violence, rape, and drug deals within their walls. They lamented the fact that the press never seemed interested in reporting on any of the work and social programs at the prison.

Shortly thereafter, I proposed making a documentary entitled “Life on the Inside,” which would do just that. Soon the prison staff threw their gates open, allowing me to bring a film crew and as many as four cameras at a time into the maximum security facility.

While prison officials may now see “Life on the Inside” as a Trojan horse that allowed me to gain entry and film Deborah Peagler for “Crime After Crime,” I fully honored the auspices under which I secured access. “Life on the Inside” was completed as a half-hour documentary that highlighted the humanity and dignity of women behind bars, and was broadcast on multiple PBS stations in California. Meanwhile, the project enabled me to document Deborah Peagler in her numerous leadership roles at the prison, and this footage found a significant “second life” in “Crime After Crime.”

The challenges of making “Crime After Crime,” however, were not limited to issues of prison access. All of the witnesses in Deborah’s case were reluctant to speak on-camera, since doing so would mean they would either need to reveal their own dark secrets, or betray the memory of a loved one (Deborah’s abuser), or both. Meanwhile, Deborah’s attorneys were themselves victims of domestic violence, a fact that I felt had to be included in the film, but that they were understandably hesitant to relate on-camera.

Through a patient but persistent approach, all of these gates eventually opened, enabling the film to fully document many facets of Deborah Peagler’s saga, and to dispel the myth that abuse only happens to individuals of a certain race, class, or gender.

Finally, the making of the film itself became a significant and direct part of the campaign to free Deborah Peagler from prison. TV news agencies that expressed an interest in telling Deborah’s story threw their hands up at the prison’s media regulations, as CBS, ABC, NBC and FOX were all barred, quite literally, from filming Deborah Peagler themselves. Excerpts from “Crime After Crime,” however, enabled them to supplement their own reporting with footage of Deborah Peagler, and they broadcast numerous stories about her plight.

Meanwhile, newspaper writers who were on the fence about covering Deborah’s case were provided with a rough cut of the documentary, which time and time again “sold them” that this was an important and gripping story they had to write about. The resulting media coverage, along with the numerous work-in-progress screenings we held in partnership with various nonprofits from 2006 through 2009, helped inspire a grassroots movement that advocated for Deborah’s freedom.

To help publicize, organize, and channel that movement, I oversaw the establishment of a website, FreeDebbie.org. Through all of this outreach, we were fortunate enough to be joined in our efforts by the Grammy Award-winning music group, who soon arranged to come visit Deborah in prison and sing with her and the prison choir, creating a powerful and artistic testament to so many who have fallen through the cracks of our justice system.

As the case came to a head, I tried time and time again to obtain interviews with senior members of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office. This office had offered Deborah a written agreement to help secure her freedom in 2005, only to then retract that offer before it could be put into effect.

Since the prosecutors refused to schedule interviews to explain these actions, I relied in part on a retired Los Angeles senior district attorney who was willing to tell the truth, and who I filmed numerous times over a three-year period. Meanwhile, to confront the prosecutors themselves, my film crew and I had to catch them where we could, staking out a top deputy outside a Los Angeles courtroom, and crashing a campaign party for a face-to-face interview with District Attorney Steve Cooley himself.

Throughout and even after the five and a half year period of producing “Crime After Crime,” there has been the possibility that I might be sued, arrested, or simply blocked from access to my subjects. But the risks of not exposing Deborah’s story – the risk that she would never gain her freedom, the risk that another young person would lose their life to domestic violence or wrongful incarceration, the risk that prosecutors would continue to feel as if they could do and get away with anything, or simply, the risk that Deborah’s experience would never be known – these were risks I could not take.

This is why, for five and a half years, I went to such great lengths to tell Deborah’s story, and this is why, for at least the next year, I am dedicating my energies to Debbie’s Campaign, our effort to work with domestic violence organizations, schools, legal organizations, and community groups to make sure that what happened to Deborah does not continue to happen to others today.