Family asks governor for release of terminally ill woman

Angela Harris speaks to reporters outside the Reagan State Building in downtown Los Angeles about her sister, Deborah Peagler.
Angela Harris speaks to reporters outside the Reagan State Building in downtown Los Angeles about her sister, Deborah Peagler.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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The family of a terminally ill Los Angeles woman is pleading with Governor Schwarzenegger to release her from prison so she may die at home. The case raises key issues facing the prison system, as KPCC’s Frank Stoltze reports.

Frank Stoltze: The story of Deborah Peagler is hard to hear. Her sister Angela Harris said that three decades ago, Peagler met a man named Oliver Wilson. The romantic relationship quickly deteriorated.

Angela Harris: He had all of us fooled. He had my sister prostituting. She was whipped with bullwhips. Later we found out he had molested my oldest niece, which is Deborah’s oldest daughter.

Stoltze: Peagler decided she needed help dealing with Wilson.

Harris: So what she did was she went to some people we all grew up with and told them that anyway they could just leave her alone and my family alone.

Stoltze: Those friends of Peagler were gang members who killed Wilson.

Twenty-seven years ago, Peagler pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. A judge sentenced her to 25 years to life in prison. Now, Harris says, her sister’s now dying of lung cancer and isn’t expected to live more than a few months.

Harris: I went and saw my sister about three weeks ago and her only wish was before she passed (cries) was to be able to walk outside and not pimp.

Stoltze: Not pimp, says Harris, and see her family again.

Natasha Wilson is Peagler’s daughter. Her father was the man the gang members killed. Wilson says she doesn’t spend much time thinking about her mother’s role in her fathers death. She says she and her father’s family have forgiven her, and want Governor Schwarzenegger to release her.

Natasha Wilson: As human we all make mistakes. we always just act out of emotion, sometime without thinking clearly. We don’t think about what the what if’s. And she’s just pushed against the wall where she felt like she just didn’t have any choice.

Stoltze: Wilson says her mother’s earned an A.A. degree in prison, and had no discipline problems. She says she’s been a great source of strength from behind bars through phone calls, letters, and visits.

Advocates for battered women say Peagler was convicted before a 1992 law allowed testimony concerning domestic abuse. Gloria Killian of the Action Committee for Women in Prison says a jury should have convicted Peagler of manslaughter, and she should have been eligible for release after six years.

Gloria Killian: I think it is heartbreaking, I think it is politically ridiculous, and I think it is a huge waste of money for the taxpayers.

Stoltze: She notes that the governor’s own plan to reduce prison overcrowding calls for releasing medically infirm inmates like Peagler.

Los Angeles County prosecutors express doubts about whether it’s a good idea to release her. They say Peagler’s offered conflicting accounts about whether she knew her friends would kill Oliver Wilson. District Attorney Steve Cooley reportedly withdrew an offer to support her release three years ago, angering Peagler advocates like Skip Townsend.

Skip Townsend: I don’t know why he reneged on his offer. It wasn’t the humane thing to do. It wasn’t morally correct. It might have been politically correct but it wasn’t morally correct.

Stoltze: The DA’s office wouldn’t comment.

The governor, who also has not commented on the case, has until Friday to decide whether to follow the parole board’s recommendation to release Deborah Peagler.