Monday, August 15, 2011

Documentaries About Two Very Different Women

I saw two documentaries recently. The topics of the films were two women born about the same time, lived in Los Angeles at the same time and were charged with very serious crimes. Both films played at the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Crime After Crime; directed by Yoav Potash; documentary; (2011) - Official Website
Tabloid; directed by Errol Morris; documentary; (2010) - Official Website

I saw Crime After Crime at the Roxie and Tabloid at the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.


Crime After Crime was directed by Yoav Potash who I last saw in Food Stamped (2010) at the 2011 San Francisco Independent Film Festival. Potash directed and starred in the documentary with his wife as they attempted to live one week on the equivalent food budget of people on food stamps. The seriousness of the subject was lightened by Shira Potash's breezy manner and Yoav's begrudging tolerance for his wife's project.

In Crime After Crime, Potash directs a completely different kind of documentary. Crime After Crime recounts the story of Deborah Peagler who was incarcerated for Murder One or Murder in the First Degree. Peagler's plight is infuriating and disheartening. Peagler was the victim of domestic abuse from her husband Oliver. Not content with beating his wife, he forced her into prostitution and molested their daughter. All these mitigating factors were not allowed to be presented at trial as a matter of California statutes.

After the police released Oliver despite his possessing assault weapons and threatening to kill Peagler and her family, Peagler's mother contacted some neighborhood Crips gang members. Peagler was African American and lived in South Central Los Angeles. The elder Peagler convinced gang members that Oliver was bad news for everyone and a wife beater/child molester to boot. She convinced Deborah Peagler to lure Oliver to a park at night where two Crips would beat the crap out of him. Instead, they strangled him to death. Peagler received a modest life insurance policy as a result of Oliver's death. The prosecution would use this as proof that the crime was a murder for profit scheme. Peagler accepted 25 years to life in exchange for the DA not seeking the death penalty.

In 2002, at which point Peagler had been imprisoned for 19 years, California passed a law allowing for evidence of battered spouse syndrome to be retroactively presented to the courts. The courts are compelled to take the evidence into consideration of sentencing and proper punishment. Peagler was assigned pro bono attorneys who figured if spousal abuse evidence was presented at trial, Peagler was at most guilty of manslaughter and subject to a maximum term of 6 years.

Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa were land use and permitting attorneys who had no idea what they signed up for when they took Peagler's case. They uncovered prosecutorial misconduct, an apathetic court system, an ambitious District Attorney and penal system designed to keep convicted murderers in prison. I can't say this was a complete surprise to me but the unwillingness of the parole board, courts and LA County DA office was infuriating indeed. I won't give away all the details but the film takes the viewer on a long & wild ride as Safran & Costa try to free Deborah Peagler.


Joyce McKinney grew up in South Carolina but was crowned Miss Wyoming in the 1970s. She moved to Salt Lake City where she met Kirk Anderson. This is where Errol Morris' Tabloid begins. The photogenic McKinney instantly fell for Anderson despite his size (one commentator in the film estimated he weighed 300 pounds). Anderson refused to participate in the film and photos of him are scarce throughout the documentary.

McKinney says that Anderson disappeared one day and she did what any red blooded, American girl would do. She set out to find him. Really? Why didn't she call the cops? A lot of obvious questions are never asked or answered in Tabloid. The blonde haired, light skinned McKinney moved to Los Angeles (around the time Peagler was meeting her husband in a different part of the city). Using monies of an undisclosed origin, she hired a pilot and bodyguard to fly to England with her and her friend Keith May. McKinney had discovered Anderson was performing his Mormon mission in England.

The pilot, who was quite readily recalled his attraction for McKinney even 40 years later, and the bodyguard dropped out of the scheme quickly. McKinney & May followed through. I'll summarize the events from McKinney and Anderson's testimony.

McKinney says she freed Anderson from a cult, drove to a cottage outside of London where she attempted to deprogram Anderson. Her main form of therapy was sexual as she attempted to become intimate with Anderson but his impotence was a barrier. Fortunately, McKinney had read that in cases where men had their sexuality repressed, it helped to bind the men so that would feel helpless and thus not feel as though they are reciprocating the sexual activity. McKinney bound Anderson and they had blissful sex for several days.

Anderson says that McKinney and May kidnapped him at gunpoint and drove to the cottage. He was bound in the spreadeagle position and subsequently raped by McKinney for several days.

Regardless of which version you believe, McKinney & May were arrested for kidnapping in what became known in the British tabloids as the "Mormon Sex in Chains Case." For a period in the late 1970s, McKinney was a the biggest tabloid figure in England.

Again, I won't give away more details because there are a lot of twists and turns in the case. McKinney gives an extended interview throughout the film and I thought she came across as decidedly loony and self-deluded.


Both films were extremely entertaining and highly recommended by me.

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