Time to let her, and this case, go
-Los Angeles Times headline, June 1, 2008
Deborah Peagler has been imprisoned since 1983. She has finally earned the right to a new hearing, but District Attorney Steve Cooley continues to oppose her freedom, even after agreeing to a deal that would have led to her release in 2005. Now she has been diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer and should be allowed to spend her final days with her family. Click here to send a letter of support for Debbie’s petition for release.
Deborah Peagler was introduced to Oliver Wilson in the late 1970′s, when she was just 15 years old. Wilson presented himself as a kind and charming man. He took Debbie out on dates, gave her gifts, and acted like a father to her daughter. Then one night he revealed that he wanted Deborah to make him some money by becoming his prostitute. When Deborah refused, he beat her with his fists, kicked her with boots, and psychologically abused her with a combination of death threats and insults. Fearing for her life, Debbie did Wilson’s bidding for years, and during that time he whipped her with a bullwhip, raped her, made her hold hot ashes in her hands, and forced her to play Russian Roullette for the entertainment of him and his friends.
She tried to escape, but each time she was brought back with a combination of violence and death threats. In early 1982 when she was informed that Wilson had sexually abused her then six-year-old daughter, Debbie fled once more. Wilson came after her with a shotgun and a band of armed men. He was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon, but the police quickly set him free. Fearing for her life and the lives of her family and seeing no other avenue, she desperately turned to two men who previously had protected her “to make him leave me alone.” These two men subsequently had a violent altercation with Wilson in a public park and Wilson was later found dead.
In 1983 Debbie and the two men were prosecuted. Despite her limited involvement in the incident, Debbie was charged with conspiracy to commit murder and first-degree murder. Her public defender did not ask her about any of the abuse by Mr. Wilson and did not gather or present any evidence of such abuse to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office.
The District Attorney sought the death penalty against Debbie, even after the DA determined that it did not have sufficient evidence to support the ultimate punishment in this case. The death penalty was used as a threat to coerce Deborah into entering a guilty plea to the charge of first degree murder. Based on this misinformation, even her own attorney instructed her that Debbie must plead guilty in order to save her own life. After entering a guilty plea, she was sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison.
While incarcerated, Deborah has had an exemplary record. She has earned an associate’s degree, worked in an electronics manufacturing plant, graduated from a battered women’s support group, and mentored many women on the inside. She has done her best to parent her two daughters, who she rarely gets a chance to see or speak with. While she is extremely deserving of her freedom, the parole board has denied her repeatedly with little or no reason.
In 2000 a new law was enacted in California to ensure that battered women prosecuted for alleged crimes against their abusers receive a fair trial. In 2002 the California Habeas Project interviewed Deborah Peagler and determined that she might be eligible for relief using the new law. Volunteer attorneys took her case and began working to establish the extensive record of the abuse Debbie had endured.
In 2005 Debbie’s attorneys met with current Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and Chief Deputy DA Curt Livesay. Livesay was the very DA who had approved the death penalty against Debbie 23 years earlier. Based on the new evidence presented by Debbie’s attorneys, and a thorough review of the DA’s files, the District Attorney concluded that voluntary manslaughter — not first-degree murder — most accurately represented Debbie’s level of culpability. At that time, voluntary manslaughter carried a sentence of 2-6 years. This meant that at the very latest Debbie should have been freed in 1989. District Attorney Steve Cooley entered into a written deal to obtain Deborah’s immediate release from prison.
In an April 2006 article The Los Angeles Times newspaper recounts what happened next: “Then Cooley changed his mind. His offer had set off a political battle in his office, according to court filings, with top level deputy prosecutors saying they should have been consulted.” The DA’s broken promise resulted in the Los Angeles Superior Court denying Debbie’s petition for release.
Debbie’s attorneys are presently attempting to win Deborah’s freedom through a habeas petition, parole, and compassionate release. You can help by writing a letter of support.
In 2005, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and his Chief Deputy DA Curt Livesay (the very person who initially approved seeking the death penalty) personally reviewed the case and entered into a written deal to set Debbie free, concluding that her release would “serve the interests of justice.” Ultimately, the District Attorney broke his agreement to release Debbie and went back on his word, failing to live up to his end of the bargain. The end result – the LA Superior Court denied Debbie’s petition for release.
Debbie’s record while in prison has been exemplary. She has earned her associate’s degree while incarcerated, leads the prison’s gospel choir, works in an electronics manufacturing plant, and has graduated from a battered women’s support group. She has mentored many inmates, providing spiritual guidance and teaching a number of them to read and write. The former Assistant Director of Policy Operations for the California Department of Corrections has written that Debbie is “a role model to other prisoners who demonstrates significant maturity, stability, and leadership potential.”
In 2009, Debbie was diagnosed with a terminal form of lung cancer. Given that she likely only has a few months to live, she should be allowed to spend her final days with her family.
Debbie’s attorneys are gathering letters in preparation for her parole hearing,
scheduled for May 28, 2009. Please send your letter today to her attorneys
at this address:
Bingham McCutchen LLP
3 Embarcadero Ctr #1800
San Francisco, CA 94111
You can draft your own letter or use the following text:
Dear Parole Commissioners and Governor Schwarzenegger,
I write to urge the California Department of Corrections Board of Parole Hearings and Governor Schwarzenegger to take immediate action to release Deborah Peagler (W#19341) from state prison. Debbie is a battered woman who was diagnosed in February 2009 with Stage IV lung cancer. According to medical reports, she has only days or months left to live.
Debbie already has served 26 years of a 25-to-life sentence despite the fact that in 2005, the Los Angeles District Attorney acknowledged in writing that she should be released from prison with credit for time served “in the interests of justice.”
Deborah Peagler poses absolutely no risk to public safety and should be released immediately to spend her remaining days with her family and other loved ones. Please do not let this battered woman die in prison.
You can also write to Debbie at:
Deborah Peagler, W19341
CCWF PO Box 1508
Chowchilla, CA 93610-1508