Timeline of Debbie Peagler’s story and the movement to end domestic violence.

Domestic violence and
the criminal justice system


the life of Debbie Peagler


Debbie Peagler, 15 years old and pregnant, meets Oliver Wilson. Over a period of several months, Oliver charms Debbie.  After the birth of Debbie’s daughter, Oliver begins acting like a kind father to her child, winning Debbie’s heart completely.


Wilson asks Debbie to help him “earn some money.” Only after she is sent into a room with a “john” does Debbie fully realize that Oliver is attempting to pimp her. When she refuses, Oliver beats and berates her. Eventually, she begins prostituting for Oliver’s financial gain.
The state of Oregon enacts legislation mandating arrest in domestic violence cases.


The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) is organized.


Wilson escalates his control over Debbie, not allowing her to speak to anyone without his consent.
President Carter establishes the Federal Office of Domestic Violence in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The opening of the office marks the first sign the federal government will provide leadership and funding in curbing domestic violence.

Dr. Lenore Walker publishes her book, “The Battered Woman,” which asserts that victims of domestic violence suffer from a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Her work is later used in court to defend women accused of killing their batterers.


Wilson threatens to kill Debbie and her family if she attempts to leave him.
President Reagan closes the Office of Domestic Violence.

In Illinois, a $10 surcharge on marriage license fees and a $5 divorce filing fee are established to support domestic violence shelters and programs.


Wilson’s drug dealing transforms into drug abuse. Debbie hides money in preparation for her escape.


Debbie finally manages to separate from Oliver Wilson. Wilson and two armed accomplices threaten to kill Debbie and her family. Wilson is arrested for assault with a deadly weapon, but is released the following day. Fearing for her life, Debbie Peagler cooperates with two neighborhood gang members, who then murder Wilson in a public park.


Debbie Peagler is arrested for her connection to the death of Oliver Wilson and is charged with first-degree murder. Facing the death penalty, she pleads guilty in order to save her life.  She is sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Farrah Fawcett stars in “The Burning Bed,” an award-winning made-for-tv movie in which she plays a battered woman who kills her husband and who is eventually released from prison when the evidence of abuse comes to light.


Nine year old Joshua Safran sees his mother horribly beaten by her husband. Joshua is powerless to stop the violence, but he vows to someday help victims of abuse.  Nearly two decades later, he will represent Debbie as her attorney.
A landmark police liability lawsuit, Thurman vs. City of Torrington, is the first federal case in which a battered woman successfully sues a city police department for failing to provide equal protection and for responding in a discriminatory manner to domestic violence calls


The Illinois Supreme Court finds the marriage license surcharge unconstitutional, eliminating a major source of funding for domestic violence agencies in the state.


The first national toll-free domestic violence hotline is established by NCADV.


US Surgeon General C. Everett Coop declares domestic violence the leading health hazard to women.


Convicted Women Against Abuse, the first battered women’s support group for prisoners in the US, is founded.


Ohio Governor Richard Celesta gives clemency to 25 battered women convicted of crimes committed while they suffered abuse. He took this action after the state supreme court established Battered Woman Syndrome as a legal defense.


For the first time, expert testimony on “battering and its effects” (i.e., domestic violence) is admitted in criminal trials in California.  However, the law is not retroactive, so survivors of battering who are already incarcerated do not have the opportunity to benefit from it. In fact, no state in the US yet has a legal mechanism in place for them to petition the courts to consider how the abuse they experienced related to the crimes for which they were convicted.



Debbie Peagler has served a decade in prison.
President Clinton signs the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), authored by then-Senator Joe Biden.  VAWA provides grants to bolster services designed to address violence against women, and leads to the establishment of domestic violence training for defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges.

Court documents show that murder victim Nicole Brown Simpson had been battered by former husband, O.J. Simpson.



Debbie Peagler is eligible for parole, but she is not granted a hearing.
President Clinton signs an anti-stalking law, which makes interstate stalking and harassment a federal offense.


Debbie Peagler is denied at her first parole hearing.
Congress reauthorizes the Violence Against Women Act.


Thanks in large part to the efforts of Convicted Women Against Abuse, California becomes the first state in the US with a law allowing victims of domestic violence who are serving time in prison for murdering their abusers to ask that their cases be reopened. The new hearings allow these victims of abuse to present evidence of the violence and control they were subjected to. If the court concludes that this evidence would have made a difference in the outcome of their cases, the inmate may be released from prison.


After learning of Debbie Peagler’s case from the California Haveas Project, Nadia Costa agrees to take the case pro bono. Nadia soon recruits Joshua Safran to join her in an effort to use California’s new law to secure Debbie’s freedom.


Deborah Peagler is denied her release at her second parole hearing. She has now served two decades behind bars.


Deborah Peagler is denied her release at her third parole hearing.
Congress reauthorizes the Violence Against Women Act for the second time.


Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley reviews evidence of domestic violence in Debbie Peagler’s case and offers her a written deal to help set her free, saying that her release from prison serves “the interests of justice.” Six weeks later, his office backs out of its deal.

Absent the District Attorney’s cooperation, Judge David Wesley denies Debbie’s habeas petition.


After Debbie’s petition is denied a second time, her attorneys file suit against District Attorney Steve Cooley in an effort to force his office to stick to their written agreement.
As California lawmakers approve a plan to spend $7.4 billion to build new prisons, budget analysts conclude that the state will soon become the first in which prison spending will exceed spending on higher education.


An investigation conducted by the California Board of Parole Hearings finds that Debbie is in fact a battered woman.  This marks the first time that the agency has recognized the abuse that she endured.


After reviewing allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, Judge William Ryan determines that the office of District Attorney Steve Cooley has “grave conflicts of interest” in the Peagler case.  He orders the District Attorney’s off the case.
During the thirty day review period for Debbie’s case, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger slashes all state funding of domestic violence agencies and battered women’s shelters. The move threatens to return the state to a time when victims of abuse had no safe place to turn…


Debbie Peagler is diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and doctors determine that she is unlikely to live to see 2010.  Her attorneys file a request for compassionate release, but it is denied.

A panel of California Appellate judges overturns Judge Ryan’s ruling and reinstates the District Attorney’s office in their opposition of Debbie’s habeas petition.

At her fourth parole hearing, the parole board rules in favor of Debbie’s release. The decision must be approved by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger…