Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cleared the way Thursday for the release of a terminally ill inmate serving a life prison sentence for murdering her abusive boyfriend in 1982, in a controversial case championed by advocates for battered women.
Deborah Peagler, 49, is expected to be released early next week, according to one of her attorneys. She has spent more than 26 years behind bars for luring her boyfriend to a park near Lawndale, where two men beat and strangled him.
The state’s Board of Parole Hearings decided last month that Peagler should be freed, despite opposition from the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. On Thursday, Schwarzenegger sent a letter to Peagler announcing that he would not reverse the board’s decision.
Peagler was overjoyed at the news, said Joshua Safran, one of several attorneys who worked for years to secure her freedom.
“Justice delayed is not always justice denied,” he said.
Battered women’s advocates had long sought Peagler’s release, arguing that she was the victim of prolonged and extreme abuse at the hands of her boyfriend, Oliver Wilson, a pimp and drug dealer.
Peagler pleaded guilty to murder in 1983 and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. The two men involved in the killing are also serving life prison sentences.
Peagler’s lawyers argued that Wilson, 23, 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 accused prosecutors of using false testimony against her during a key court hearing before she pleaded guilty to murder.
Since her conviction, 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.
In 2005, Peagler’s attorneys asked the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office to reconsider her case. A top district attorney’s official agreed that it would be in the “interests of justice” to allow Peagler to plead to a lesser charge that would have resulted in her immediate release, but the office later withdrew its offer.
The reversal touched off a bitter and public dispute with Peagler’s attorneys at the law firm Bingham McCutchen LLP, who worked for free on her case.
Prosecutors accused Peagler of providing inconsistent accounts over the years about the extent of her abuse and whether she knew that the two men intended to kill Wilson. Prosecutors also 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.
A district attorney’s spokeswoman declined to comment Thursday on the governor’s decision.
Peagler has been diagnosed with lung cancer, and doctors estimate she has only months to live, her attorneys said. Once released, she plans to live with one of her sisters in Carson.
Vicky Barker, legal director of the California Women’s Law Center, said she welcomed the governor’s decision. Peagler, she said, had spent far longer behind bars than she would have had she been allowed to present evidence of her abuse to a judge or jury.