A Woman, An Inmate, An Inspiration

In about a month, I will be leaving my job and home to move 2800 miles away for law school. Lately, this has seemed like a daunting task: is it really necessary to do all that packing, make new friends, and take out student loans? Couldn’t I make a difference here in D.C.?

Of course I could. The question is, would I? In between my job, hobbies, and social life, I don’t devote as much time as I should to advocacy. Which leads to a follow-up question: what new tools could I gain from law school that would help me do more of this work?

The film I saw last night answered many of my doubts. Crime After Crime documented the story of a woman in California, Deborah Peagler, serving a life sentence in prison for first-degree murder. She was also a former victim of domestic abuse.

In 1983, Debbie was accused of having her husband, Oliver Wilson, killed for insurance money. The D.A.’s office knew that Wilson abused her–sometimes with a bull whip–and pimped her out. They also had reason to believe he had molested Deborah’s daughter. Debbie was only indirectly tied to his death, and even that evidence was shaky. Nonetheless, they threatened Deborah with the death penalty, forcing her to agree to a life sentence to save her life.

Evidence and culpability issues aside, the domestic abuse clearly played a role in the case. Yet the abuse was not even mentioned in court. Legal experts interviewed in the film agreed that Debbie was at most guilty of voluntary manslaughter, which carried a maximum sentence of six years. At the start of the film, she had spent 20 years in prison.

Thanks to a unique California law, Debbie was able to have her case re-opened in 2002 by two pro bono lawyers. The law, California Penal Code §1473.5 or the Habeas Law, allows inmates who are victims of domestic abuse to have their cases re-examined. If evidence of abuse offers mitigating circumstances that would have likely changed the trial results, victims may have their sentences reduced.

Debbie faced many barriers, including a merciless parole board, a court that didn’t even read her petition, and a D.A.’s office trying to cover up past mistakes. Eventually, her case succeeded, albeit in a bittersweet way. However, there are many more abuse victims in similar situations.

Debbie was only the 24th person to successfully use the Habeas law, seven years after the law’s passage. Although the law could also be used by battered men, it seems to be aimed primarily at women. According to the film, 80% of the 120,000 women in prison in the U.S. have histories of abuse or rape. If even a small portion of these cases could be re-opened under the new law, there is still a lot of work to do.

It’s frustrating that this law is limited to California. It seems obvious that other states should adopt it, in order to re-visit past injustices and reduce the prison population. Yet I am glad that it exists in this state: since I will be moving there in just a few weeks, there is a chance that I could volunteer on some of these projects. I don’t know that my school works with the Habeas law, as it seems limited to volunteer legal teams from private law firms. I do know that they have a domestic violence project. Perhaps their project could be expanded to work with the Habeas law–that could be one way to make a difference.

While there are many ways I could be helping women–and humanity–I chose this one. Gaining a legal background will help me aid those like Deborah with problems with the justice system. Women like Debbie need the help of a lawyer, and I know I would find this type of work engaging. So it seems that I have chosen the right path after all.

I’m glad I went to the movies last night.


Note: To learn more about those working with California Penal Code §1473.5, please visit the website of the California Habeas Project. Crime After Crime has a link to some additional organizations you can volunteer with here.

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