In 1982, then 23-year-old Deborah Peagler was arrested for the murder of Oliver Wilson, who had trapped her in an abusive relationship from the age of 15. The murderers were friends of her mother's, but Peagler was sentenced for her part in the killing—bringing Wilson to the site of the execution—as a first-degree murderer, landing 25-to-life in California. Yoav Potash's documentary on Peagler's fight to receive parole splits its attention equally between Peagler and her pro bono attorneys, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran. Not content to stick to the lawyers' airtight case for Peagler's exoneration and freedom, Potash devotes lots of time to tinkly piano music and people crying. Stylistically dull, Crime After Crime proceeds from one talking-head interview to the next, sticking to sentiment. The film's eventual destination (Oprah Winfrey's network OWN) is no surprise; it doesn't belong in theaters, and audiences will be limited to the activist community.
Peagler's sad tale is meant to alert us to the plight of thousands of women convicted and jailed for crimes sparked by domestic abuse. A new California law could offer these women the right to appeal their convictions if they were victims of violence. The film's cause is strong, but the tale is told in teary family testimonials studded with photos. For their part, Costa and Safran (who both have abuse in their backgrounds) are competent and passionate advocates whose many conferences, nonetheless, seem to unfold in generalities and platitudes for the camera's benefit.
Potash shoots without conviction: during a theoretically tense parole hearing, his reaction shots of Costa looking grimly pensive while Peagler's tearful sister delivers a statement makes Crime After Crime look like a drabber episode of The Hills. Peagler's narrative is devastating in and of itself: her background includes not just abuse, but lifelong separation from her two daughters, a dubious conviction and cancer possibly caused by toxic metals in the same prison that Costa and Safran persuasively argue should have sentenced Peagler to no more than six years.
As the tale grows more lurid and disheartening, Potash's rare stylistic flourishes undermine the seriousness of his subject: at one point, as if to pile on the miseries, he zooms back from the prison complex to show roadkill. At other times, his ideas are just embarrassing: filming a private investigator striding through a fluorescent-lit hallway grows no more dramatic in slow-motion, while running footage of clouds backwards and then fading to gray as a visual metaphor for a reversal of fortune is just stupid. Potash's decision to insert himself into the film seems less like an acknowledgment of his complicity with Peagler's lawyers and more like self-promotion, especially as the narrative stops dead to include footage from one of his previous films. In a misguided swing for the emotional fences, much is made of Peagler and her prison church choir collaborating on a song with R&B veterans Arrested Development—but good intentions make for bad music. Indeed, Potash's constant emphasis on the healing powers of religion, while harmless, isn't germane to the main problem: the systemic wrongful jailing of women at the mercy of an unequal law.
Distributor: mTuckman Media
Director/Producers: Yoav Potash
Running time: 95 min.
Release date: July 1 NY, July 8 LA