By Gargi Padki
Debbie Peagler, a survivor of domestic violence, was convicted of second degree murder in 1983 after setting up her abuser to be jumped by two known gang members. She spent over twenty-six years in jail for her crime, and was given compassionate release by the State of California after being diagnosed with cancer. She spent the last few months of her life sharing her story, working to increase awareness about state legislation that takes survivor trauma into account when sentencing women for committing violent crimes against an abuser. The law is designed to assess violent histories and tendencies, and lawyers can submit evidence on behalf of a defendant or an already incarcerated person to decrease jail time or release a prisoner. The law recognizes the effects of battering on survivors and is an effort by the State of California to lesson the prison population. Other states are in the process of adopting more compassionate legislation that validates survivor narratives.
Dear Ms. Peagler,
I’m having a lot of difficulty starting this letter to you. I would like to begin with an apology: I’m sorry that you went to such great lengths to protect yourself from Oliver, I’m sorry that you felt so unprotected and desperate for relief, and I’m sorry that your case was not initially investigated further. I feel thankful that there was new legislation in California that shortened your sentence by recognizing the years of abuse Oliver perpetrated towards you, but I also know that it was not passed until you had already served nineteen years, thirteen of which could have been spent free.
I wonder what type of intervention could have prevented your relationship with Oliver from escalating to such a violent end. Maybe if you had been educated on the types of abuse and the patterns, behaviors, and tactics abusers employ to control their intimate partner, you would have sought help earlier. I believe that if more people learned about the telltale signs of abuse, the initial courtship, the secrecy and constancy of the violence, and the pathological fear that forces survivors to hide the abuse, then we could successfully recognize and intervene to help survivors escape or deescalate violent confrontations with their batterers. By the time that cops are called, the intervention is usually far too late. The underlying psychological abuse, which escalated to visible scars and bruises, makes the survivor feel completely unable to live without her intimate partner.
I wonder why the police failed to protect you. Oliver was released after one night in jail. Do you think that if Oliver had been incarcerated for longer that you would not have reached for such violent means of protecting yourself from him? If Oliver had been imprisoned for longer do you think you would not have felt the need to set him up to be attacked? I have a different opinion than you: I do not believe that you should have set Oliver up to be jumped. But I believe that Oliver would have killed you if he had the opportunity. If society recognized that battering can be and often is lethal, then we would impose stricter regulations on sentencing known batterers and become more vigilant of violent patterns of behavior.
The difficulty is that people are not so different now than they were when your case was prosecuted. We still tend to put the burden of leaving on the survivors. We want to minimize and deny the violence so we can continue to be permissive of a culture of violence. It is easier to turn a blind eye than to be vigilant and support women who are being battered. I know many women who have similar stories of getting caught up with men at a very young age. They do not understand the severity of the violence and do not understand the depths to which an abuser will go to control his or her intimate partner. In abusive relationships, there is also a tendency for survivors to want, hope, and trust that their batterers will change. I can imagine that you must have believed Oliver out of desperation.
There have been legislative steps in the right direction: Survivor defendants are now afforded more compassion by some state legislatures. There are pushes to investigate abusive relationships that lead women to committing violent crimes. We are learning to trust and validate a survivor’s narrative. But so often our instincts turn towards blaming or distrusting women when they do speak up about mistreatment. If we can remain free from judgment about their actions, more women will feel safe speaking out against battering. That will help empower them to end the cycle of violence that can so often govern their own lives.
To learn more about Debbie Peagler’s story, check out “Crime After Crime: The Battle to Free Debbie Peagler,” a documentary released in 2010.
For more information on domestic violence, come to the Project Speak Up Speak Out recruitment session on November 3rd at 6:30 pm in Shepard Hall, room 350.