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Sundance documentary raises questions about D.A. Steve Cooley's role in appeal of 1982 murder case [Updated]

January 25, 2011 | 12:59 pm

Deborah Peagler, pictured behind the security glass at Central California Women's Facility prison. Credit: Yoav Potash
A documentary that presents a withering view of Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley's handling of a controversial murder case premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival.

The film, "Crime after Crime," focuses in part on what the filmmakers argue were key errors in the prosecution of a domestic violence victim who orchestrated the killing of her estranged lover, errors they say Cooley was reluctant to admit.

Deborah Peagler spent 26 years in prison for the 1982 killing of Oliver Wilson in South Los Angeles. Her attorneys say her crime should have led to a six-year sentence, if prosecutorial errors had been disclosed and if Wilson’s abuse had been considered.

According to her lawyers, the district attorney should have disclosed an internal memorandum that concluded a key witness against her had perjured himself and that they never intended to seek the death penalty against her.

Cooley's spokeswoman, Sandi Gibbons, said he had no plans to see the film.

"Deborah Peagler," she said, "intentionally orchestrated the murder-for-hire of her estranged boyfriend. She lured him to the spot where he was killed. She witnessed the murder and drove the killers away. She profited by receiving money from the victim's insurance."

Gibbons noted that Cooley -- who was elected Los Angeles County district attorney in 2000 -- was among numerous law enforcement and court officials of the opinion that Peagler should remain imprisoned. 

"Her post-conviction collateral appeals were denied by various courts of record," Gibbons said. "Her claims have been discredited over and over again."

The highly emotional film follows Peagler and her two pro bono attorneys in their years-long fight against Cooley to win her release.

In 1983, Peagler pleaded guilty to first-degree murder to avoid a death sentence, but at the time the fact that she had been a battered woman did not come into play. In 2002, California became the first state in the nation to allow women to have murder cases reconsidered if they could show they were abused and that it led to the killing. Peagler’s attorneys believed the change in the law should open the door for her release.

In Peagler's case, police records show that Wilson was arrested for assaulting her with a gun days before she led him to a park where two men beat and strangled him. Peagler acknowledged that she arranged the ambush, but said she meant to scare, not kill Wilson. She said saw no other way out after years in which he forced her into prostitution, beat her with a bullwhip and molested her young daughter.

Her effort to be released won the support of Wilson's own brother and sister. Cooley initially supported his top deputy’s recommendation to offer Peagler a lesser charge and support her release "in the interest of justice,” then changed his mind and filed papers in 2006 to block the proposed release.

The film, which won a standing ovation at its premiere, chronicles the community protests that followed the district attorney's flip-flop, Times columnist Steve Lopez's call for her release and the descent down a bureaucratic rabbit hole as Peagler’s attorneys continued to lobby for her freedom. In 2009, she was released after the Board of Parole Hearings recommended her for parole. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could have overturned this finding, but in the end chose not to and thereby allowed Peagler's release to go forward. Ten months later she died of lung cancer.

[Updated at 11:17 a.m., Jan 26: An earlier version of this post said that Peagler got out of prison under a compassionate release order signed by Schwarzenegger.]

The film's director, Yoav Potash, a longtime friend of one of Peagler's attorneys, said, "This film is the public complaint, and [Cooley] can't hide from it." Many viewers hissed when the district attorney appeared on screen.

Potash said a deal for a distributor was in the works and will likely be announced later this week.

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-- Garrett Therolf in Park City, Utah

Photo: Deborah Peagler, pictured behind the security glass at Central California Women's Facility prison. Credit: Yoav Potash

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