Advocates for battered women are urging Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to release a terminally ill prison inmate who is serving a life sentence for her role in the 1982 murder of her abusive boyfriend at a secluded park near Lawndale.
A state parole board decided last month that Deborah Peagler should be released after spending more than 25 years in prison for luring the victim to Alondra Park, where two men beat and strangled him with an electrical cord. The governor has until Aug. 21 to decide whether to reverse the parole board's decision.
Peagler's lawyers argue that she was the victim of prolonged and extreme violence at the hands of her longtime boyfriend, Oliver Wilson, 23, a pimp and drug dealer. They said Wilson forced her into prostitution, beat her with a bullwhip and, a few days before he was killed, took her to a motel and repeatedly raped her. Peagler also has accused prosecutors of using false testimony against her during a key court hearing before she pleaded guilty to murder.
But Los Angeles County prosecutors dispute Peagler's claims, saying she has given inconsistent accounts about the extent of the violence and whether she knew the two men intended to kill Wilson. Prosecutors contend that Peagler had several reasons to arrange Wilson's death, including jealousy of his new girlfriend and a desire to cash in on his life insurance.
Since Peagler pleaded guilty in 1983, California has allowed defendants convicted of a violent felony to win reduced sentences if they can show that domestic abuse and its effects led to the crime.
Peagler's supporters say she committed her crime when there were few places for domestic violence victims to seek help and little awareness in the justice system about the effects of battering.
"She was so horrifically abused," said Marisa F. Gonzalez, an attorney who sits on the steering committee of Free Battered Women, which advocates for prison inmates who were the victims of domestic abuse. "I can't see how she can possibly be seen as a threat to public safety."
Free Battered Women has asked supporters on its website to contact Schwarzenegger's office on behalf of Peagler. Her backers note that she has terminal lung cancer and that doctors estimate she has only months to live.
Among others who have sent letters supporting her release are three of the victim's adult children and the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.
A spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger said the governor's office has received correspondence both for and against Peagler's release.
In a letter sent to the governor on Aug. 4, L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley wrote that there may be reasons for a compassionate release but urged against freeing Peagler based on her claim as a domestic violence victim.
Cooley said that abuse did not justify Wilson's murder because Peagler and he were estranged at the time of the killing and because Wilson posed no imminent threat when she persuaded him to meet her at the park.
"Such calculated and premeditated conduct is entirely inconsistent with an abused woman desperately acting in self-defense," Cooley wrote.
Peagler was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison as part of her plea agreement with prosecutors, who had initially sought the death penalty. The two men who carried out the killing are serving life sentences.
Peagler's attempts to win release have sparked a contentious, years-long battle with Cooley's office.
In 2005, prosecutors agreed that it would be in the "interests of justice" to allow her to plead to a lesser charge that would have resulted in her immediate release, but the district attorney's office later withdrew the offer.
Peagler's attorneys accused district attorney's officials of reneging on the deal because of internal political squabbles. Prosecutors said they backed away after learning more about Peagler's case.