Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Peagler Case: Crime After Crime

Years from now, outgoing Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley may find himself a case study of the costs of an inadequate PR response. With a new documentary alleging misconduct in his handling of a re-opened twenty-six year old murder case, intrepid critics going online in search of a thorough response from Cooley will find exactly nothing. As a result, the history’s judgment on the prosecutor may well be largely determined by Yoav Potash’s Crime After Crime (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York at the IFC Center.

If you have a plot of land in Southern California you would like to rezone, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran are the people to see. Specialists in land-use law, they volunteered as part of a pro-bono California Bar initiative to help convicted inmates with cases eligible to be reopened under a then new state law, due to extenuating domestic abuse circumstances. There were fortunate to draw a client they wholeheartedly believed in, but Deborah Peagler’s case would consume years of their professional careers (much to the surprise of their indulgent firm).

The arsenic of Potash’s film involves Cooley’s decision to welsh on a deal to plead Peagler’s murder conviction down to manslaughter, which would thereby facilitate her release. All the statements from his office have been terse largely unusable copy for the media. While he might have had some understandable misgivings about Peagler’s pre-meditated and subsequent actions with regards to the murder-for-hire killing of her abusive husband, his office never effectively articulates them and Potash is not about to provide him an assist.

As cinema, Crime After Crime has a similar appeal as Steve Zaillian’s A Civil Action, but Costa and Safran are more engaging POV figures than Travolta’s Jan Schlichtmann. Lucidly edited by Potash, every twist and turn of the case is easy to follow. Yet, the deliberate one-sidedness of it all should nag at the back of viewers’ minds. Still, Cooley is partly to blame for leaving the message exclusively in Potash’s hands.

Make no mistake, Crime is an advocacy film, inextricably tied into a campaign to commute the sentences of women convicted of murders directly linked to the abuse they endured. Yet, purely as a chronicle of a protracted and complex legal case, Potash’s documentary is rather compelling stuff. Recommended (with reservations) to legal junkies, Crime opens tomorrow (7/1) in New York at the IFC Center.