In 1963, Deborah Peagler pleaded guilty to murder for luring her boyfriend to a park to get killed. But her entire case, leading up to her release in 2009 and death in 2010, is a rollercoaster indictment of the system in itself.
Oliver Wilson, Peagler’s boyfriend since she was 15, regularly raped her, beat her with a bullwhip, and molested her daughter. Finally, after unsuccessful attempts to leave the relationship, enough was enough. People in her community said, “Let us handle it. We will take care of it.” They did.
So, why did Peagler end up pleading guilty in the first place?
Peagler’s lawyer has said that prosecutors threatened her with the death penalty: if she took a 25-to-life deal instead of maintaining her innocence, she’d at least be alive. “I sit in prison wondering, was there a better way, was there a different way?” she said.
The system has a huge problem with breaking people down to accept pleas instead of actually being honest about what happened. But the system will also incarcerate anyone, regardless of being “innocent” or “guilty.”
Stories like Peagler’s should force us to think more critically about the criminal legal and prison systems at large. We have to ask ourselves, what does incarceration actually tell us about being “innocent” or “guilty”? Who is incarceration helping? And, most importantly, who is it hurting?