Twenty-five years after a Los Angeles prosecutor admitted that the key witness against her was a liar, and three years after L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley agreed to a deal that would have led to her release, Deborah Peagler is still in prison for the 1982 murder of a pimp who repeatedly beat and sexually assaulted her.
Cooley, who in 2005 had a sudden change of heart about Peagler’s release, is fighting to keep her locked up at the state prison in Chowchilla despite a 2002 law allowing reconsideration of cases involving battered women.
Peagler, in a telephone interview last week, told me Cooley’s flip-flop was devastating.
“I was prepared to leave here, emotionally and mentally. I was gone. I was no longer a prisoner,” said the 48-year-old.
Then came word that Cooley had changed his mind after some members of his staff objected to a release. “I was shocked, numb, so disappointed once again. I still have hope. However, I don’t have any faith in the system I’m in.”
I was asked to look into the Peagler case not by a bleeding heart but by Sean Walsh, a Republican political consultant who works at Bingham McCutchen, a corporate law firm whose senior members include former California Gov. Pete Wilson.
Two of the firm’s lawyers, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, have represented Peagler free for six years, trying to win her release. They believe she was guilty of voluntary manslaughter, for which she probably would have served several years and been released many years ago.
“This is about hubris and ego,” Costa argued. She and Safran accuse Cooley and his staff of having fought Peagler’s release to quell an internal dispute about the case, to keep up the appearance that the D.A.'s office made no mistakes in her prosecution and to avoid civil liability.
Nonsense, says the D.A.'s office, arguing that Peagler committed a premeditated murder, possibly to collect on a life insurance policy, and that Cooley and a senior staffer didn’t know all the details of the case when they agreed at a 2005 meeting to support her release.
Peagler and Oliver Wilson had a stormy relationship over the course of six years while living in Inglewood and South Los Angeles. Wilson was a pimp, and Peagler says he forced her to be a prostitute while she was still in her teens.
Peagler told me Wilson frequently beat her with his fists and a bullwhip and sometimes sexually assaulted her. She said that he also molested her daughter and that she was “in constant terror and fear for my life.” She finally decided to act in her own defense after Wilson and his cohorts threatened her and other family members with a gun.
On May 27, 1982, Peagler had Wilson drive her to a park, where two acquaintances of hers moved in for an ambush. She said she had wanted the friends to beat him up and warn him off her, but as she waited in the car, they instead beat him and strangled him with a cord.
The two accomplices are serving life terms for the murder. On the advice of her attorney, Peagler pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in 1983, fearing that if she didn’t, the D.A.'s office would seek the death penalty at trial, charging her with killing Wilson to collect a $17,000 life insurance policy.
And so she began serving a term of 25 years to life. Peagler, who leads her church choir in prison, joined a battered women’s support group behind bars. That was long before the 2002 law allowing abused women a chance to have their sentences reduced if they could prove the abuse led to the killing. Through the support group, she met Costa and Safran, who began amassing evidence of Peagler’s abuse.
The attorneys also dug up a 1983 memo in which a prosecutor said the key witness “appears to have committed perjury during the preliminary hearing.” The memo also raised questions about the murder-for-financial-gain motive, suggesting Wilson might have been killed for molesting Peagler’s child. The memo recommended against seeking the death penalty.
Costa and Safran say Peagler was never made aware of those developments and surely would not have agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder if she had been.
In 2005, the attorneys met with Cooley and then-Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Curt Livesay, arguing their case and laying out evidence of Peagler’s abuse. Shortly thereafter, they received a letter from Cooley and Livesay that all but agreed to set her free.
“This office would be willing to offer a plea to one count of voluntary manslaughter . . . which most accurately describes the defendant’s criminal conduct” and “serves the interests of justice.”
So why did Cooley renege?
A spokeswoman, Sandi Gibbons, said Cooley can’t discuss the case because he could be called to testify when Peagler’s petition for release is heard. Cooley’s office is appealing a decision last month in which a judge removed the D.A.'s office from the case and sent it over to the state attorney general’s office, arguing that prosecutors could not fairly cross-examine their own boss.
But I did meet with prosecutors Lael Rubin and Laura Jane Kessner, who argued that Peagler is a hardened and conniving killer who has made contradictory statements about her role in the murder and is exactly where she belongs.
As they see it, she planned the murder, she cashed the $17,000 insurance policy and she is now exaggerating the abuse she suffered as a way to get out of prison. Even if she was abused, they say, she still should have been charged with first-degree murder rather than manslaughter because she was not living with Wilson and was not under imminent threat.
Cooley and Livesay would not have agreed to the deal, they said, if they had been presented with all the facts of the case.
I’m not sure what’s worse: that Cooley and his chief deputy would offer a get-out-of-jail deal without doing any homework or that they’d be unprofessional enough to withdraw it without a full explanation for their ineptitude, especially after getting Peagler’s hopes up.
And though Rubin and Kessner may doubt the extent of the abuse suffered by Peagler, there was little doubt by the state parole board last November. A senior investigator interviewed multiple witnesses who told of severe physical and psychological abuse of Peagler by Wilson and concluded that “battering was a causative factor” in the murder.
The same report found “no proof” that Peagler “conspired to have him killed.”
As for the insurance policy, Peagler said a friend was selling policies all over South Los Angeles. She said she missed the payments and forgot the policy even existed until she got the money, which she used in part to pay for Wilson’s funeral.
Peagler’s attorneys argue that contrary to Rubin’s claim that there was no imminent threat, the abuse continued almost until the day Wilson was killed. By phone, I asked Peagler why she never called police.
Because he’d hurt her even worse, she said. Besides, she’d seen her stepfather pummel her mother, and calling the police didn’t help.
Why did she speak up about the abuse only in recent years?
“Shame and embarrassment,” she said, and a sick love of her tormentor. She’s heard countless similar stories from battered women in prison, she said, and she’s well aware that among California prosecutors, Cooley is notoriously reluctant to cut abuse victims a break.
Peagler, who was no angel as a young woman, makes no claim of innocence. She said she considers herself responsible for Wilson’s death.
“But I never, ever sat down and plotted or planned his demise,” she told me. “I thought they were going to, like, beat him up and make him leave me alone.”
As I was saying, a key witness was a liar, she had no trial, the D.A. agreed to serve justice three years ago, and a woman repeatedly abused by a pimp is still locked up 25 years after his murder.
It’s time to let her go.