Terminally Ill Convict Deborah Peagler to Be Released

Deadline nears for governor to free Deborah Peagler, who is dying of cancer.

ByRussell Goldman
August 19, 2009, 7:10 PM

Aug. 20, 2009— -- A terminally ill convict, in jail since 1983 for conspiring to kill her boyfriend and whose release became a cause celebre for advocates of battered women, will be freed from a California prison, according to the Office of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger had until Friday to approve or deny Deborah Peagler's release following the recommendation of a state parole board who last month ruled that Peagler, who is dying from cancer, be released.

The governor instead chose not to review the board's recommendation, automatically making its decision to free her final and binding.

In a letter to Peagler, Christopher Krueger, the state chief deputy of legal affairs secretary, wrote: "The governor has declined to review the Board's decision to grant parole in your case."

"That means the board's decision [to parole] stands," said Jeff Macedo, the governor's spokesman.

Peagler, pleaded guilty to murder in 1983 and admitted to luring her boyfriend to a park in Lawndale, Calif., only to have him brutally murdered.

Her case became a cause celbre among domestic abuse advocates who say she was not allowed to present evidence in 1983 that she was tortured, raped and forced into prostitution by her boyfriend Oliver Wilson, then 23.

Her case got added attention when earlier this year Peagler was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, which has since spread to her liver and bones. She has been given just weeks to live.

A team of Berkeley lawyers took up her case pro bono six years ago and were ecstatic to learn their client would able to go home and die amid her family and supporters.

"It means justice delayed is not justice denied. She's getting out and getting out very soon. She'll live with family, friends and supporters, and be able to die with dignity," said lawyer Joshua Safran.

"It can happen as quickly as a week or five days," he said of her release.

A state parole board last month voted to release Peagler from prison where she is serving out a term of 25 years to life.

Schwarzenegger had until Friday, an expedited deadline set 30 days from the board's decision, to approve or deny Peagler's release.

It wass not just her terminal illness that her lawyers and supporters said warranted her release, but the circumstances under which she pleaded guilty to the murder of Oliver Wilson, 23, nearly three decades ago.

Six and a half years ago, long before her diagnosis, a team of lawyers took up Peagler's case pro bono. In an attempt to free her, they conducted a two-year investigation and found alleged evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, and a long history of abuse and torture at Wilson's hands -- a fact she was not permitted to enter during her trial.

"She was savagely abused by Oliver Wilson and tried to escape several times," said Nadia Costa, one of Peagler's lawyers.

Peagler, 49, claims Wilson beat her with a whip, sexually molested the daughter they had together, and raped her several times just days before the murder.

"Terrified for her life, she accepted the only offer of help she was given. Two men said they could scare Wilson enough to make him leave her alone. The two men beat and killed him and she too was charged along with them with first-degree murder," Costa said.

Battered Woman or Ruthless Murderer?

Advocates for battered women say Peagler was a victim of her times, forced to take a plea deal in the benighted 1980s when domestic abuse was not commonly understood as a reason for self-defense.

In 1983 she pleaded to first-degree murder and accepted a sentence of 25 years to life, after prosecutors threatened her with the death penalty, according to her lawyer.

The Los Angeles County prosecutor, however, tells a very different story about how Wilson, a known drug dealer, ended up in Alondra Park, where the two men beat him and strangled him to death with a power cord.

In a recent letter to Schwarzenegger, District Attorney Steve Cooley did not give an opinion on whether Peagler should be released but reiterated the prosecution's theory at the time of the trial: Peagler had Wilson killed to collect his life insurance.

"Ms. Peagler conspired with two hard-core gang members to kill her estranged boyfriend. She then attempted to pay the co-conspirators with proceeds from the victim's life insurance," Cooley wrote.

Cooley also told the governor that Peagler's story has changed several times in the course of her incarceration.

"Over the last two decades, Ms. Peagler has provided dramatically inconsistent statements regarding her conduct and mental state on the night of the victim's murder," he wrote. "Even if Ms. Peagler's claims of intimate partner abuse were true in whole or in part, they still do not justify or excuse her criminal conduct.

"Such calculated and premeditated conduct is entirely inconsistent with an abused woman desperately acting in self-defense," Cooley wrote.

Peagler has been close to freedom before. In 2005, the district attorney said they would let her plead to a lesser charge that would allow her to be released, but later balked and rescinded the offer, saying they gained new information.

Murder Convict Wants to Die With Her Family

In June, her lawyers asked a court to release her on bail. County prosecutors did not object, but a judge ruled that the law did not permit such a release.

Members of the victim's family, including his father, sister and three children, wrote to Gov. Schwarzenegger supporting Peagler's request for release.

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