Berkeley lawyer, terminally ill prisoner celebrate her release after years-long effort

On Aug. 23, Deborah Peagler watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean for the first time in 27 years.

She celebrated that milestone at Manhattan Beach with her biggest advocate by her side — her lawyer, Joshua Safran, a Modern Orthodox Berkeley man who fought for her release from prison for seven years.

“I’ve had Debbie’s case on my long to-do list, and suddenly I had this image of myself checking off that box,” Safran said. “I really feel the proverbial burden lifted from my shoulders and feel that I can breathe deeper.”

Joshua Safran and client Deborah Peagler savor the sunset after her parole from prison.

Safran flew to Los Angeles to see Peagler with his oldest daughter, 6-year-old Eliel. She had just been born when Safran took on Peagler’s case. To him, her growth is proof of just how long he’s worked for the woman’s release.

“As we walked along Manhattan Beach, Debbie and Eliel held hands, and when they got to the water’s edge, they turned around to face me, and the waves came in and lapped their feet, and they both laughed and galloped out of the water, and for a second, they looked like kids together,” Safran said. “It was a big moment for me.”

Peagler was convicted of first-degree murder in 1983 for arranging 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.

Safran and his co-counsel, Nadia Costa of Orinda, took the case on a pro-bono basis. They ramped up their efforts to get Peagler out of prison in February when she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

The parole board that had denied her release twice before granted Peagler freedom in July. On Aug. 20, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he would not review or overturn the parole board’s decision to free Peagler.

On Aug. 22 she walked out into the world, a free woman. There was no fanfare — the prison released her days before expected, which Safran surmised was to avoid a media frenzy.

She was freed on a Saturday morning. Because Safran keeps Shabbat, he found out after Havdallah, when he called Peagler’s sister on her cell phone. She told Safran to hold on. A moment later, a free Peagler said hello to her lawyer.

“My reaction was one of complete disbelief,” Safran said. “Not only because it was borderline miraculous that she was actually out, but because we always expected this particular moment of Debbie walking through the prison doors, vindicated, like a ceremony of closure and new beginnings. But they snuck her out the back door in a van and didn’t tell anyone.”

The following day, Peagler dipped her toes in the Pacific Ocean for the first time in nearly three decades. Though she now uses a wheelchair, she was able to walk into the ocean on her own.

“It’s been hard to wrap our minds around it, that suddenly here she is, in plain clothes, in the free world — it’s surreal,” said Yoav Potash, a Berkeley-based filmmaker who has been working on a documentary about Peagler’s case for the past several years. Potash was present for the emotional scene at Manhattan Beach.

With Peagler out of prison, Safran will have more time to spend with his family and to devote to his nonprofit, the United Tribes of Israel Foundation, which helps support and develop Jewish education programs and women’s Torah study. Soon, the United Tribes plans to start a publishing house and put out a CD of traditional Jewish music.

Potash will continue shooting and editing his film, “Crime After Crime.” He plans to finish it next year and screen it at a major film festival. The unfinished version will be screened 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 1 at the Bay Area Video Coalition, 2727 Mariposa St., San Francisco. For more information, visit www.crimeaftercrime.com.

Peagler is living with her sister, Angela Harris, in the Los Angeles area, where she’ll continue chemotherapy treatments. And she’s not finished with the courts. She intends to fight for her exoneration and for damages, alleging prosecutorial misconduct by the L.A. County district attorney’s office.

Safran will continue to represent Peagler.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.