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In 1983, Peagler was sentenced to 25 years-to-life for her connection to the murder of Oliver Wilson, the charismatic, drug-dealing boyfriend who had forced her into prostitution while still in high school and beaten her with a bull whip when she refused to comply. In the film’s opening 20 minutes, Potash presents a potent narrative of the relationship’s distressing history. It ended when Peagler’s mother, whom Wilson and his thugs had also threatened, suggested she enlist local Crips gang members to rough him up. That warning got out of control and Wilson was killed, with Peagler sharing the murder rap.
Due to less public awareness of domestic-violence issues when the case was tried – not to mention misconduct by the D.A.’s office and a shaky prosecution witness with a personal agenda – the full circumstances of Peagler’s case were never heard. But when a new penal code was introduced in California two decades later, two pro bono lawyers whose primary field was land rights signed on to reopen the case.
Playing out against that six-year odyssey of breakthroughs, setbacks and willful obstruction is the sorrowful human story of Peagler herself, a warm African-American woman whose spirit remained unbroken despite the knowledge that she should have served a maximum six years for manslaughter. A model prisoner who completed her education behind bars and became supervisor of the prison’s electronics shop, she was denied parole on numerous occasions, despite pleas on her behalf from Wilson’s family. When Peagler was diagnosed with cancer, the reopened case became a race against the clock.
With its bittersweet outcome, this is a tremendously moving story, strong in social commitment and deftly woven out of years of footage. Many of the statements made by Peagler, her family and that of Wilson are heartwrenching. The more complex tale begging a deeper probe is the insidious legal machinations and self-protection at the highest authority levels that kept Peagler behind bars despite overwhelming evidence. But in its chosen focus, the doc lays out a suspenseful drama that steadily tightens its knot of indignation.
Potash can’t resist a little unnecessary manipulation, however, and the occasional sentimental shots of a bird perched on prison wire, or a single rose against a metal fence, are mawkish intrusions in an otherwise eloquent report. Likewise there are a few too many teary images conveying the quiet heroism of the pro bono lawyers.
To a mild degree, Potash dilutes the film’s emotional center by punching up the personal profiles of the unquestionably admirable legal crusaders – both of whom share their acquaintance with abuse issues. Joshua Safran is an affably shlubby Orthodox Jewish family man, while Nadia Costa is a toned marathon runner all too willing to trot out prosaic endurance metaphors. At times it’s as if these supporting players are being molded for a Lifetime original movie, ideally starring Paul Giamatti and Keri Russell.
The film nonetheless lays out its case with forceful righteousness, persuasively advocating for more states to join California in revisiting their penal codes to consider the mitigating circumstances of abuse.
Production: Life Sentence Films
Producer: Yoav Potash
Consulting producer: Gail Dolgin
Directors of photography: Ben Ferrer, Yoav Potash
Music: Jaymee Carpenter
Editors: Yoav Potash, with Frank Giraffe
Sales: Submarine Entertainment
No rating, 92 minutes
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