Dispute in D.A.'s Office Blocks Inmate's Release

Times Staff Writer

Deborah Peagler thought she would be home for Christmas.

Eight months ago, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Peagler should be freed from the life prison term she has been serving for 23 years for helping to kill her live-in boyfriend in an Inglewood park.

Cooley said then that he believed Peagler, 46, had been a battered woman. That was not considered in 1983 when she pleaded guilty to first-degree murder to avoid a death sentence.

In "the interests of justice," Curt Livesay, then Cooley's second in command, wrote Peagler's lawyers in July, Cooley would offer a voluntary manslaughter charge and support her release from prison.

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.

That internal strife in the district attorney's office has kept Peagler in prison, her lawyers say.

Cooley withdrew his offer in September, accommodating the deputy prosecutors who fought his decision, according to court filings and interviews.

Senior deputies then told Peagler's lawyers not to mention the deal in their written filings seeking Peagler's release, according to court records; they complied.

Unaware of the withdrawn deal, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Wesley on Dec. 13 denied Peagler's petition for a writ of habeas corpus, the legal instrument for freeing wrongly imprisoned inmates.

District attorney spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said Cooley and other officials in his office could not comment because Peagler's lawyers have filed a civil claim against Los Angeles County, a precursor to a lawsuit, over revocation of the offer. But she said the internal dispute isn't the only issue, adding that some prosecutors do not believe Peagler was battered.

"I don't really know what the problem is in the district attorney's office, but it can't justify leaving her to rot in there," said Joshua Safran, one of Peagler's lawyers.

Peagler, who is in the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, was not available for an interview.

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Deborah Peagler had been with Oliver Wilson for six years when he was killed. They never married, but they had a daughter and lived together in Inglewood.

She claims Wilson had physically and sexually abused her and forced her to work as a prostitute for him before she moved to her mother's home. Four days before he was killed, Oliver Wilson threatened her with a gun at her mother's house, court records show.

The night of May 27, 1982, Peagler asked Wilson to drive her to Alondra Park in Inglewood, where she knew two friends were ready for an ambush.

The men beat Wilson and strangled him with a cord. Police found his body the next day. Both attackers are serving life terms in state prison.

Peagler faced the death penalty because of accusations that she hired the two attackers and cashed in a $17,000 life insurance policy on Wilson, but she was spared by her guilty plea.

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In January 2002, a new California law allowed abused women convicted of killing their batterers to get out of prison if they could show that the battering and its effects led to the killing.

Peagler, who had joined a battered women's support group in prison years before the law's enactment, came to the attention of advocates, who introduced her to Bay Area-based lawyers from the influential law firm Bingham McCutchen.

The lawyers spent two years amassing what they said was evidence that Wilson "seriously and systematically physically, sexually and psychologically battered" Peagler. Zabrina Mitchell, the slain man's older sister, spoke on Peagler's behalf, saying in a court filing she overheard the beatings in their house.

In the summer, Peagler's lawyers met with Cooley; his veteran second-in-command, Livesay; and Livesay's special assistant, Deputy Dist. Atty. Karla Kerlin.

Safran, the lawyer, said the meeting raised their hopes. Cooley and Livesay "kept using phrases like 'How do we get her out ?' " Safran said.

Two days later, Livesay sent a letter on Cooley's behalf recommending that Peagler's lawyers file a writ of habeas corpus. Livesay also said the district attorney would offer Peagler a plea of one count of voluntary manslaughter and give her credit for the time she'd already served in prison, which would mean she'd be out soon.

The next week, Safran and Nadia Costa visited Peagler in prison and gave her the news. Peagler was overjoyed and told the lawyers she wanted to make it home by Christmas. "I told her she might make it for Thanksgiving," Safran said.

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Safran and Costa believed they would file a "stipulated petition" in which both sides would state their agreement that Peagler should be released. Legal experts say judges rarely deny such petitions.

But when the lawyers followed up in August, Kerlin told them the deal had set off a turf war, Safran said in a declaration filed with the court.

Lael Rubin, deputy district attorney in charge of the appellate unit, whose division normally would have handled the case, was one of those upset with the deal, according to Peagler's civil claim.

Cooley turned over the Peagler case to Rubin, who told Safran, "What you have done is good lawyering, but it is not the way we do things here" and said that the case would move through "normal channels," according to Safran's declaration.

The prosecutors would not join the defense in its court motion.

In a voice mail to Safran, a transcript of which appears in court filings, Kerlin told Safran not to mention their earlier deal in the motion. "We didn't want this to look like some kind of backdoor deal thing," she explained.

The prosecutors' decisions not to join the stipulated petition and to ask the defense not to mention the earlier deal, Kerlin said, would address the concerns raised by Rubin and other top deputies. "We've ruffled the little feathers, but we're unruffling and undoing that now," Kerlin said.

Kerlin promised that prosecutors would arrange a meeting for both sides with Wesley, in which they would say they supported Peagler's release.

Safran said in his declaration that Kerlin did not want the deal disclosed in the filing, so "the district attorney's office wouldn't publicly be the reason Ms. Peagler was released."

David Guthman, a retired prosecutor hired by the Bingham McCutchen law firm as a consultant for the case, said in a court declaration that he was told in August by John Spillane, then an assistant deputy district attorney, that the concerns of his office "had nothing to do with the facts or merits of the case" but were based on deputies feeling "excluded." Spillane has since been named chief deputy, succeeding Livesay.

The deal was officially dead on Sept. 12, when Curtis A. Hazell, an assistant district attorney, wrote on Cooley's behalf that the office was withdrawing the July deal made by Livesay.

The prosecutors did not set up the meeting with the judge. Wesley denied the petition without a hearing, saying that because Peagler had hired Wilson's killers, the crime was deliberate and premeditated, not an impulsive act of self-defense.

But Wesley ruled without key information, Peagler's lawyers say. In deference to prosecutors, Peagler's lawyers had not mentioned a 1983 prosecution memo they had discovered. Prosecutors said in the memo they would not seek the death penalty in part because Peagler offered the two men money not to kill Wilson but to keep quiet about it. The memo apparently was not shown to Peagler or her lawyer before she pleaded, her lawyers said.

The prosecution memo struck at Wesley's main rationale for denying her release, that she had arranged a murder for hire. It also raised questions about the validity of Peagler's murder plea. She had pleaded guilty to first-degree murder to spare her life, believing she faced the death penalty, Guthman said in his declaration.

Concealing the memo was a clear-cut case of misconduct that could provide another legal avenue to reversing Peagler's conviction, Peagler's lawyers said.

Peagler's lawyers have filed a motion asking Wesley to reverse his decision, citing both the district attorney's withdrawal of the plea deal and the memo. Their civil claim, for $1 million, alleges that the district attorney unlawfully breached the 2005 agreement with Peagler's lawyers and that her guilty plea was coerced because prosecutors had not revealed they would not seek the death penalty.

Peagler's lawyers last visited her in January. "She told us there were a couple of days when she was absolutely broken down," Costa said, "but she felt comforted her story would be told and might benefit other battered women."

Livesay retired from the district attorney's office in February and did not return phone calls seeking comment. In his court declaration, Guthman said he spoke to Livesay in December, 10 days after Wesley denied Peagler's release. Guthman said Livesay told him denying Peagler her freedom would be a "miscarriage of justice" and added, "I know we're not doing the right thing."

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