By Dwight Hobbes
Debbie Peagler will never be nearly as well known as Angela Davis (see MSR’s review last week of the documentary film Free Angela). Still, she is no less a sister whose saga warrants close attention and even calls for outcry. After all, Angela did escape the noose and will never be forgotten as long as history is recorded.
Crime After Crime (Own Documentary Club) painstakingly documents the tortured life and tragic death of Deborah Denise “Debbie” Peagler. A misstep by this domestic violence victim, desperately at wits’ end trying to get out from under a soulless abuser, unwittingly sent her from bad to worse. She was further victimized by a manipulative, duplicitous, so-called criminal justice system.
From the outset, nobody saw Debbie Peagler as a human being. To her miserable excuse for a man, Oliver Wilson, she was a meal ticket, just so much attractive flesh he rented out, peddling her in prostitution. Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, as well as LA detectives and deputies, didn’t give a damn how culpable she wasn’t.
She was railroaded, a notch on their belts. By the time she’d been smacked, punched, kicked and bullwhipped by Wilson, and after serving a trumped-up sentence at California Institute for Women (then Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla), it’s hard to imagine how much more dehumanized this young woman, age 24, could have been.
Appallingly enough, though, women and girls have been through worse. Debbie Peagler’s worst offense was that of far too many innocent females — being young and dumb enough to be suckered in by a good-looking man. If they’re lucky, they get over it and move on.
She wasn’t lucky. Smith turned out to be a pimp who turned her into a sex slave. Literally. Once he got his hands on her, she was imprisoned, cut off from friends and family. Her sister Angela recounts, “It seemed as though [to law enforcement] it was just another Black woman gettin’ her [behind] whupped, by her boyfriend. So be it.”
The restraining order wasn’t worth the paper on which it was perfunctorily written. Neither was her life. Her mom, Joyce, who’d survived abuse, suggested Debbie look outside the law. Joyce knew Crips gangsters Ramone Sibley and Timmy Lively. Debbie lured her abuser into ambush, thinking they’d merely beat him so bad he’d leave her alone.
Joyce recounts, “I thought if he got his butt whipped, he’d go on about his business and leave my child alone.” He was strangled to death after Peagler had left the scene. Everybody except Joyce got caught.
Lively lied about how extensively Peagler was involved, thereby lightening his sentence and dragging her down with Sibley. The district attorney knew Lively lied. Law enforcement knew it. They were not going to trim any fat, though, off the gang task force fearlessly fighting for law and order.
So what if she should’ve got, at most, six years for voluntary manslaughter. She was Black in Compton, not some White socialite, and got 25 years to life. Despite increasing evidence she didn’t belong behind bars, she served every single day of those 25 years, getting out in time to die a year later of cancer. She literally never had a life.
Incredibly enough, Peagler didn’t let it get the best of her. Not even after it twice looked like she’d see freedom only to have it yanked away at the last minute. Faith in God saw her through. That and a couple of rookie lawyers at The Habeas Project along with the loving support of Joyce and Debbie’s sisters.
Toward the end, she states at an event in her honor, “I share my story in the hope that no one would ever have to suffer what I’ve been through.” It is all the more tragic that her hope, as evinced by what women still go through, was in vain.
Producer-director Yoav Potash, thoughtfully holding to immediacy, sensitively capturing her from relative youth to her last days, does Debbie Peagler justice — much more so than did the law.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.
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