Two years later, there is still no justice for Deborah Peagler

Nearly two years ago I wrote a story about Berkeley lawyer Joshua Safran, an Orthodox Jew, and his efforts to free a black Christian woman, Deborah Peagler, from a California prison. It took me months to research and countless revisions to arrive at the final draft. I spent many nights not sleeping, worried my words wouldn’t do the story justice.

stacey palevskyOn Oct. 19, 2007, it was published on the cover of j. with the headline “A legal odyssey: An Orthodox lawyer, a convicted killer and a quest for freedom.”

Peagler was convicted in 1983 for the murder of her husband, Oliver Wilson. He had abused her for years, but that evidence was never presented in court. Battered woman syndrome was not considered admissible evidence in California until 1992. Peagler was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Safran got wind of her plight in 2002, after the state passed a law giving women incarcerated before 1992 the opportunity to have their sentences reconsidered by presenting evidence of domestic violence that might have changed their trials.

I was drawn to the story for its legal drama and emotional core. Safran’s mother was abused by a boyfriend when he was a child; Peagler was a victim of abuse. Safran was an Orthodox Jew; his client was a devout Christian.

Those parallels and contradictions had sparked a true friendship between the pair. I intended to document their bond and the injustice that created it.

When the story was published, Safran and his co-counsel, Nadia Costa, had spent five years arguing that Peagler did not deserve a life sentence.

Safran e-mailed me last week after I asked him for an update.

“Things are not well with Debbie,” he wrote. “She is dying.”

On Feb. 27, months after the case first encountered gridlock in the Los Angeles Court of Appeals, Peagler was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She was told she had up to eight months to live.

Peagler’s lawyers filed a motion for her release on bail, so she could live out her remaining days with her family.

On March 12, Peagler’s sisters and daughters sat in a Los Angeles courtroom to advocate for her release. Even Oliver Wilson’s sister came, saying she supported Peagler’s release.

The judge denied their request.

Safran and Costa then requested a “compassionate release,” which allows those with fewer than six months to live to die in their homes.

The prison denied that request because there’s a chance Peagler might live eight months, Safran said.

And so Peagler remains in jail. She is in a wheelchair and in constant pain, which means she can’t do what she loves: teaching women how to read and write, and leading the women’s gospel choir, a battered women’s support group and a Christian ministry.

In 2007, Safran told j. that his efforts “will all be worth it when Debbie gets out.”

But his optimism is evaporating. During a phone interview last week, he said, “There’s a line in the Talmud that says ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’ I always felt this would be the case that disproves that.

“But now I see how the system works … It’s more likely than not we’ll fail and she’ll just die in prison.”

Peagler remains in jail despite nearly seven years of work from a dedicated legal team and multiple appearances in newspapers and on TV.

She is now 49. More than half of her life has been spent behind bars in California’s bloated prisons.

Each year, the Passover haggadah reminds us that we were once slaves in Egypt, but now we are free.

We tell the Passover story to remind us to always fight for the rights of the oppressed. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The eight-day holiday just ended. If there was ever a time to advocate for freedom, it’s now.

Write a letter in support of Deborah Peagler by sending Joshua Safran an e-mail at [email protected]om.


Stacey Palevsky
lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected]

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.