A legal odyssey

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Joshua Safran promised his client he wouldn’t cut his hair until she was out of prison. He guessed he’d grow his tight brown curls for three months, maybe five, tops.

Eighteen months later, in February of this year, his hair grazed his shoulders, scratched his neck and frizzed on rainy days. The style was so un-lawyer-like that it never failed to spark the question: Why?

It was a visual pledge to his client, he’d explain, that he would not rest until she was released from prison for a murder she says she didn’t commit.

His hair was so long, “I felt like I was wearing my anxiety about the case at all times,” he said. “I felt like the case was haunting me. I could never get it out of my mind. It wasn’t healthy.”

So Safran, who is modern Orthodox, assembled a beit din — a Jewish court — to consider the merits of cutting his hair, even though Deborah Peagler remained in prison. Could he break his promise?

After some debate, the three judges determined that Safran needed to reconcile the broken vow with Peagler, not with God. He went to her and they came up with a compromise.

Safran would schedule a haircut and ask his friends and relatives to make a pledge and guess the weight of his shed locks. The stylist cut 4.2 ounces, and the guessers’ donations helped the lawyer raise $1,000, which Peagler requested be used to start a nonprofit to help battered women.

For half a decade, Safran has worked to free Peagler from prison. She was convicted in 1983 for the murder of her husband. He had abused her for years, but that evidence was never presented in court. Battered woman’s syndrome was not considered admissible evidence until 1992, when California law recognized abuse as a defense in murder trials.

Peagler’s case resurfaced in 2002, when California passed a groundbreaking law giving women incarcerated before 1992 the opportunity to have their sentences reconsidered, by showing that the outcome of their trial could have been different had evidence of domestic violence been presented in court.

Berkeley resident Safran and colleague Nadia Costa, both land-use lawyers, took Peagler’s case on a pro-bono basis. They work at the Walnut Creek office of the international law firm Bingham McCutchen. Everyone assumed the case would be relatively speedy.

Instead, it has consumed 2,000-plus attorney hours over the past five years.

It has also become the subject of a documentary-in-progress, footage of which the lawyers have screened to Jewish audiences to raise awareness about Peagler’s story.

Throughout, the case has severely tested Safran’s faith — in God and the legal system.

But he and Costa now have reason for renewed hope. The state Court of Appeal in July issued an important ruling in their favor. Now it’s up to Attorney General Jerry Brown to decide Peagler’s fate. He recently filed a second extension to respond; Safran and Costa believe he’s “on the fence.”

It’s not the first time the lawyers have been hopeful. Their first petition, which took three years to put together, looked to be successful, but was ultimately denied.

Brown can file for infinite extensions. So Safran and Costa wait. If this appeal, their third, is denied, it means walking through another legal maze, either in the California Supreme Court or federal courts.

The lawyers say they are prepared for that. They won’t stop fighting until Peagler can walk out of prison forever.

“We have a team mantra: People are made to persevere,” Costa said. “That’s how you find out who you are. It has kept us going, and certainly for Debbie, when things get out of her control, she releases that and mentally puts it in a box marked ‘God To Do.'”

Safran has an easy smile and a slight belly. He often wears blue shirts that brighten his Pacific blue eyes. His thick beard has a reddish hue.

On the surface, it appears Safran and Peagler have little in common.

He is devoutly Jewish — a wealthy, white lawyer who embraces the eco-ethos of his Berkeley community. She is a black Christian, stuck behind bars, praising the Lord so ardently she’s known as “church lady” to the other inmates.

But go deeper, and they are quite alike.

Their faith is equal in intensity. They grew up in poor families, she in Florida and he in a tiny town in Washington state. Both have been on the front lines of domestic abuse: Peagler was a victim of her husband’s near-torturous abuse, and Safran’s mother was abused by his stepfather when he was a child.

“Deborah’s case reminded me of my mother’s situation,” Safran said, “except that my mother was able to run away.”

Safran’s Judaism colors all aspects of his life, and he has a gift for steering conversations toward Jewish ideas. This includes big concepts like social action and justice, and the mundane, like tying your shoes (which Safran has used as an opportunity to explain that Jewish law requires tying the left first, motions that mirror laying tefillin.) His talmudic trivia runs deep.

Taking on Peagler’s case was personal.

“There is a specific injunction in the Torah that says we are obligated to redeem captives — people who are incarcerated unlawfully,” he said. “It’s the kind of mitzvah you can break Shabbat to accomplish.”

Not that he does that very often. Shabbat is the only day of the week he does not work. He turns off his Blackberry and his bosses and clients know not to call.

He spends Saturday mornings either at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth Israel or Beit Midrash Ohr Ha Chaim. Afterward, his wife, Leah, and three daughters come home, play games, dance and sing. Saturday evenings often find them celebrating the traditional “third meal” over a vegetarian spread with friends and neighbors.

But Peagler’s story has found a way into his home life.

“My 4-year-old daughter plays this game where she puts a character in prison. Sometimes she has a Deb character,” he said. “Her solution is always for the prisoner to come stay at my office or our house.”

Safran was born in San Francisco. When he was 4, his mother learned that someone was knifed to death on the slide at their neighborhood playground in the Mission. That was enough urban living for her. They slowly traveled north over the next two years, finally settling in Skagit County, Wash., near the Canadian border.

There, they lived out a back-to-the-land lifestyle — off the grid, without a telephone, running water or electricity. The only other Jew in town was Bob Shapiro, who owned the Dali Llama Llama Ranch.

Safran was the brunt of jokes in elementary and middle school. He was different — he didn’t attend church on Sunday mornings, his relatives didn’t hail from Scandinavia, his hair was curly, his nose big.

He regarded Christianity with disdain until he met Peagler.

“I always felt like an outsider, and that made me depressed. But when I could put a name on it — that I was Jewish — it made me feel the opposite,” he said. “I felt like, I do belong. I’m not an outsider. I’m part of the Chosen People.”

For years he read (by kerosene lamp) every book the local library had on Judaism, Jewish history and Israel.

When he scored high on his PSATs, his mailbox filled with college brochures. One from Oberlin College caught his eye. It asked: “You think one person can change the world? So do we.” He chose Oberlin.

Soon he realized he wanted to be more than a “library Jew.” He got involved in Oberlin’s Jewish community, then spent two summers in Israel before studying abroad for a year. After graduation, he studied at yeshivas in Safed, Beersheva and Jerusalem. “I wanted to study my own people’s law before I studied American law.”

He moved to California to attend U.C. Berkeley’s Boalt Hall College of Law, graduating in 2001.

By that time, he had become Orthodox, which to him “felt like the only spiritually complete path,” he said. “I wanted to get involved in something that came out of the ancient spirituality of the land of Israel. I wanted to go to the source. My feeling is that only a traditional approach gives you that perspective.”

Deborah Peagler was born in 1960 in Pensacola, Fla., and was raised by her grandmother. But when Peagler became pregnant at 15, her grandmother told her she had two options: marry the baby’s father or have an abortion.

Neither seemed right to Peagler. She moved to south central Los Angeles to live with her mother, but quickly fell in with a bad crowd.

Soon after giving birth to a baby girl, she met Oliver Wilson. He was charming, kind. He took her out on dates, gave her presents and acted like a father to her daughter.

But the relationship curdled as Wilson grew increasingly violent and abusive. He beat her, forced her into prostitution and threatened to kill her and her children if she left him.

Six years after they first met, Wilson was beaten to death. Peagler was convicted of first-degree murder.

The prosecution claimed Peagler hired two neighborhood thugs to kill Wilson. Peagler claims she never asked them to kill Wilson, nor promise them money.

“Even though I hated him and I was mad at him, I still didn’t want him dead,” Peagler said in a statement she made on video while in prison. “I just wanted him to leave me alone.”

Evidence of Wilson’s abuse was never presented at trial.

Safran and Costa connected with Peagler in 2002 thanks to the Habeas Project, a coalition of nonprofits created after California passed a law giving a small number of jailed, battered women another chance to plead their cases, reduce their sentences or be released for time served.

Peagler is one of 80 women for whom the Habeas Project has assigned a lawyer.

When Safran and Costa began to collect evidence, they found that at the time of the trial, the district attorney’s office sought the death penalty. Based on this and excluding evidence of her husband’s abuse, her public defender instructed her to plead guilty to first-degree murder to avoid death row. She did and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

After taking Peagler’s case, Safran and Costa met with the Los Angeles district attorney’s office. Based on the new evidence and a thorough review of the case files, that office concluded voluntary manslaughter more accurately represented Peagler’s level of culpability. At that time, voluntary manslaughter carried a sentence of two to six years.

On July 28, 2005, the district attorney wrote to Safran and Costa agreeing to release Peagler from prison.

She was so thrilled she started looking through furniture catalog, thinking about what kind of couch she would buy, imagining a night’s sleep in her own room.

District Attorney Steve Cooley later changed his mind. (A spokesperson at the D.A.’s office said they do not to comment on any case that is under appeal.)

Safran and Costa considered suing over the matter, but that would have been an entirely separate case.

“The hardest day of my life was going to Debbie and saying, ‘Guess what? You were denied. You’re not getting out,'” Safran said.

Peagler is held at the Central California Women’s Facility, a 640-acre prison in Chowchilla, about 40 miles north of Fresno.

She lives among 4,325 inmates, more than double the number the prison was designed to hold. It is the country’s largest women’s prison.

Peagler has been an exemplary prisoner, her lawyers say.

She earned an associate’s degree on Wednesday, Oct. 17. She has worked in an electronics manufacturing plant and helped lead a battered women’s support group. She’s become increasingly religious, and Safran and Costa say she’s a spiritual, nurturing leader to other women.

Still, all three of her requests for parole have been denied.

The lawyers visit every other month. Upon arrival, they check in at the visiting counter, pass through a metal detector and two motorized chain-link fences, and meet their client in a designated attorney room.

The rooms are cinderblock enclosures about the same size as those a potential pet owner might sit in while playing with dogs at an animal shelter.

Yoav Potash has recorded some of those visits. The Berkeley-based filmmaker is working with Costa and Safran to document aspects of Peagler’s case, and has screened some of the footage throughout the Jewish community — appearances that have given the lawyers a chance to speak publicly about their legal battle.

Potash and Safran are longtime friends. “I met Joshua at a time when he wasn’t fighting to save anybody’s life, when he was more carefree,” Potash said. “He was just as energetic and intelligent and funny as he is now, but all those energies are being channeled in a different way. Now he has a lot of pressure. I think he does very well in all his obligations, but I know he also feels the stress.”

Safran’s eternal optimism about the Peagler case wavers when he admits how difficult it has been to juggle the responsibilities of dad, observant Jew, attorney and crusader for justice.

He is often at the office until 11 p.m. or midnight, working on his regular caseload. His pro bono work tips the scales — about every other month he finds himself pulling all-nighters.

The work has put added pressure on his home life. Last year, his firm halved his holiday bonus, since his pro bono work consumed so many more hours than expected. The lost income equaled two of his daughters’ yearly tuition at Contra Costa Jewish Day School and Gan Ilan preschool.

But Judaism and family are still his priorities, and observing Shabbat provides him with a sense of calm and balance, he said. During the rest of the week, he tries to lay tefillin before he leaves for work at 7:30 a.m. If he’s home, he leads his daughters in a bedtime Sh’ma.

He finds time for the three daily prayers when he can — in the car or during 2 a.m. walks after a long day at work. It’s in those prayers he recites Matir Asurim, a prayer to “free those who are bound.” The Peagler case has breathed life and warmth into what otherwise could be a rote prayer, he said.

“I came to peace with the fact that this case might be something I work on for the rest of my life,” he said. “But it will all be worth it when Debbie gets out.”

When that day comes, Safran plans to bring his daughters to the jail to watch Peagler walk out a free woman, so they can see why Daddy spent so many late nights at work.

When that happens, Peagler has said she first wants to see the stars and hear the ocean, simple delights that have evaded her for 24 years. She wants to make up for lost time with her sister and two daughters. And she wants to work with female inmates and survivors of domestic violence.

“Her faith makes me feel less depressed about our failures thus far,” he said. “I can tell myself that I have succeeded because even though we’ve so far lost in court, we’re spreading a gospel — about God, battered women, gender empowerment and the justice system.

“It makes me feel involved in a spiritual odyssey as well as a legal battle.”

Jewish, legal groups advocate on behalf of battered women

California is the only state with a law intended specifically to help exonerate or reduce the sentences of battered women for crimes against their abusers.

After the law passed in 2002, a coalition of legal nonprofits formed the Habeas Project (www.habeasproject.org) to help women access their new rights. To date, 19 women have been released.

The U.S. Congress also is paying attention to the needs of abused women, in and out of prison.

The Senate is considering legislation to train a national network of volunteer attorneys to represent domestic violence victims who could not otherwise afford legal representation.

In response, Jewish Women International started a petition for supporters of the legislation. The organization hopes to get 5,000 signatures via its Web site, www.jwi.org.

JWI also just launched The Legal Project, which aims to increase the pool of attorneys equipped to represent battered Jewish women on a volunteer or reduced fee basis.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.