story of a middle-aged woman (debbie peagler) who killed her boyfriend and had served 20+ years by the time the documentary begins. two lawyers take up her cause pro-bono to get her out. she was beaten and pimped out by the guy and more or less arranged for the guy to be killed, but didn’t do it herself. the lawyers argue that the most she should have served is 6 years for a lesser charge. a new california law makes it possible to rehear the case and introduce the abuse as part of the reason behind the murder (it wasn’t brought up in the original trial).
it turns into a multi-year legal marathon with the requisite ups and downs. i think you have to be careful to not read too much into the film. the filmmakers definitely make the case that her case is indicative of many others in california. they say that 80% of the women serving time for murder were involved in abusive relationships of some kind. the “some kind” makes me wary because that could mean a lot of things. kinda like when they mention that arnold reduced funding for domestic abuse programs around the same time that peagler was facing parole. taken out of the context of state-wide cuts and a financial crisis like the state has never seen, this looks callous and like one more snub by the system. in reality, everything got cut under arnold, so it’s disingenuous at best.
quibbles like this aside, it is a good and compelling story of someone who was clearly failed by the system, her family, support structure, community, police, d.a. and pretty much everyone along the way. on an individual level it’s a sad and somewhat inspiring story. she overcomes a lot and perseveres in spite of a roller coaster of legal issues. on the larger level it’s really disheartening to see, again, how slowly the wheels of “justice” turn. doing the right thing is a painful process for those in power. admitting wrong doing is painful for them. the film doesn’t even mention the increased emphasis on plea bargains in criminal trials. clearly, peagler should have been given a better day in court, but she was railroaded like a lot others are. i believe that most people in jail probably did something to deserve it, but they should get their day in court and they just aren’t because the numbers make it impracticable.
one other thing i liked about the film is that it opens up a whole debate about personal responsibility vs. government’s role, purpose and effectiveness of the criminal justice system, biggest factors leading to her fate, etc. some will say that her father’s absence was a breakdown of the family unit and that was the biggest factor. the fact that she wasn’t married will be a problem for them as well. others will point out the lack of quality police involvement and community resources for battered women; the police could have ended things before they got as serious as they did. others will cite the overcrowded criminal justice system or the overreach of the government as the most atrocious aspects of the case. some will say she probably got what she deserved. she didn’t kill him herself, but she had him killed so 20+ years is appropriate, regardless of what happened to her.Watched in theater