Virgil Films // 2011 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // June 23rd, 2012
Horribly abused...Wrongfully imprisoned...One signature away from freedom.
Imagine serving a prison sentence of 25 years to life for a crime committed in desperation. Now imagine being told, after 20 years' imprisonment, that you should have been sentenced to only six years. And now imagine, despite being a model reformed prisoner, you are denied parole. In the face of such crushing frustration, it is a testament to the human spirit that Debbie Peagler remained such a positive woman. The documentary Crime After Crime tells the story of the legal fight for Debbie's release. It is an inspiring film that honors Debbie's strength, perseverance and goodness.
It wasn't until 2002, that California introduced a law allowing incarcerated victims of domestic violence to petition the courts to review their cases. Until then, cases tried before 1992, which were not originally allowed to submit evidence of abuse as part of their defense, were not re-opened. Volunteering their time to California's Habeas Project, lawyers Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran review Debbie's case and discover a history of horrific abuse at the hands of Oliver Wilson. Despite reporting the incidents to police, only to be ignored, Debbie couldn't escape his control. When gang members killed Oliver, Debbie was connected to the crime and threatened with the death penalty if she didn't plead guilty and accept a life sentence.
When Nadia and Joshua hire a private investigator to unearth records and track down witnesses to the 20-year-old case, they discover a trail of perjured evidence and unethical judicial practice. Their efforts seem to finally pay off when Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley offers them a written deal, stating that Debbie should be freed to serve "the interests of justice." However, weeks later he would rescind the offer without explanation. What began as a pro bono good deed for the two lawyers becomes a five-year fight for justice.
As the stakes grow higher, the lawyers take unconventional steps to spotlight Debbie's case. They start a media campaign, give interviews on television and sue the L.A. District Attorney's office. The public and some celebrities join the cause calling for Debbie's release but there is still one politician who can terminate hope with one decision.
Debbie is one of the most heroic people I have ever heard about. Surviving years of terrible domestic abuse and then surviving prison is commendable enough, but Debbie rebuilt herself in prison. Finishing her education, teaching other inmates, leading the prison's gospel choir and being a leader of the prison's labor force are among her achievements. When she speaks in interviews, you can see the strength, peace and love in her person. Filmmaker Yoav Potash (Food Stamped) says he knew he was going to make a movie about Debbie after their first meeting and it's obvious the inspiration and motivation came straight from Debbie.
Designated as the lawyers' videographer in support of their legal case, Yoav had unprecedented access to Debbie and the prison, which normally forbids inmates from appearing on camera. Cleverly, Yoav was making another documentary about the progressive California prison and captured lots of footage with Debbie as a result. The film follows the frustrating legal process through its many hurdles. Yoav smartly calls upon Joshua to explain his avenues of petition by drawing on a white board. This succinctly establishes the legal game for viewers and dispels the complexities that will interfere with the real human drama and tension. The film is not only a great documentary; it's an accomplished legal thriller.
The camera work is superb and the standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is very attractive. The picture is sharp and clear while the colors are natural. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo mix works well, with clear dialogue heard throughout.
Released by Virgil Films under the banner of Oprah Winfrey's OWN Documentary Club, the film is introduced by Rosie O'Donnell following Oprah's generic welcome to the documentary line. Deleted scenes run about 20 minutes and include an alternate edit of Debbie's back-story that incorporates re-enactments of some incidents. There is also an ending that uses scenes from Debbie's memorial. The "Q & A at Sundance" segment (14 minutes) is quite interesting as Yoav, Nadia and Joshua take questions from an audience after the screening. Yoav talks about the evolving edit of the film and the constant appeal for funding to complete it. A featurette titled "In Context" (7:30) talks about the fallout from Debbie's case and the ongoing campaign it has spawned. Several text screens cover the bios of almost all of the filmmaking team and the contributing musicians. There is also a list of the awards and press quotes the film has received. Lastly, the film's trailer is also included.
Crime After Crime can be maddening with its exposure of judicial corruption and political insensitivity. It is upsetting to realize that ordinary people's lives amount to nothing when powerful individuals refuse to admit their errors. The lasting statement of the film, however, is the belief that people are compelled to do good. Debbie is an inspiration because despite the abuses and injustices she has suffered, she remained a woman of strength, courage and beauty. Nadia and Joshua are equally inspiring for their resolve to see justice done even though they have nothing to gain personally through the long and arduous fight. These are heroes that exist in real life. The DVD is highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Virgil Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Alternate/Deleted Scenes
* Official Site