Aesthetically speaking, there’s nothing particularly special about Crime After Crime: It’s the sort of earnest, straightforward, no-frills advocacy doc that gets released to arthouses a dozen times a year, often preceding its bow on cable. (In this case, on the Oprah Winfrey Network.) But every once in a while, real life unfolds so dramatically that content trumps form, and the filmmaker doesn’t have to do much lobbying to alarm people over a shocking injustice. The title Crime After Crime refers to the succession of setbacks and tragedies that beset Debbie Peagler from a young age, some stemming from terrible domestic abuse, and others from a broken system that favors ass-covering and thoughtless “tough on crime” initiatives over doing the right thing. Any reasonable person could recognize the myriad holes in the case against Peagler, but the years-long struggle to win her freedom reveals how doggedly unreasonable our institutions can be.
When we first meet Peagler, she’s more than 20 years into a 25-years-to-life sentence for the first-degree murder of her boyfriend, Oliver Wilson, but there’s context to the crime. Peagler met the charismatic Wilson when she was 15 and pregnant, and a cycle of domestic abuse and intimidation began when he tried to force the smitten teenager into prostitution and beat her mercilessly when she refused. Years later, after she and her two daughters (the second, Wilson’s) finally escaped and found refuge in her mother’s Compton apartment, her boyfriend continued to harass them and threaten them with violence. Finally, Peagler’s mother enlisted the services of two Crips to send Wilson a message. Death by strangulation—followed by some prosecutorial chicanery that left one gang member off the hook and forced Peagler and the other to take steep sentences without trial—deposited her in prison for the bulk (if not the whole) of her adult life.
And that isn’t even the half of it. At the time, evidence of Wilson’s abuse wasn’t even admissible in court, let alone cause to reduce the charge to manslaughter. Crime After Crime shines a light on a new law in California designed to aid survivors of domestic violence, but finds plenty of gaps in its enforcement. Through the ceaseless efforts of two dedicated pro bono lawyers—both with personal reasons to keep up the fight for five or six grueling years—director Yoav Potash follows every revelation and setback with an urgency most fiction films can’t muster. Crime After Crime ends a naked plea for viewers to get involved in bringing attention to victims of abuse and wrongful imprisonment, and it has the footage to back it up.