Pro Bono Rank Firm
(Am Law 200 Rank)
Am Law
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With More Than 20 Hours
Bingham McCutchen (32)


For a land use attorney based in California’s Bay Area, Nadia Costa has spent an inordinate amount of time knocking on doors in south central Los Angeles. Costa, counsel at Bingham McCutchen, has devoted thousands of hours over the past six-and-a-half years reconstructing a long and harrowing story of abuse to try and win her client’s freedom.

The Am Law Pro Bono 100The woman at the center of the abuse, Deborah Peagler, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in 1983 on charges that she had hired two gang members to kill her pimp and one-time boyfriend, who she said had repeatedly assaulted and raped her. Peagler, who waited in a car while the gang members strangled and beat the man to death in an Inglewood city park, was sentenced to 25 years to life.

Peagler’s case may have ended there if not for a California law passed in 2002 that allowed victims of domestic violence convicted of a crime—where the abuse was related to the crime—to file a habeas petition if the abuse was never presented during the original trial. Peagler’s case was referred to Bingham by the California Habeas Project, which to date has helped 19 domestic violence victims serving life sentences in the state get released from prison.

Costa says she initially thought the Peagler case would amount to filing some paperwork, a view that almost seven years later she calls “incredibly naive.” Instead, Costa, along with Bingham attorneys Geoffrey Robinson and Joshua Safran (who is no longer with the firm), spent the first few years on the case talking to witnesses, family, and friends to get a cohesive and corroborated story of Peagler’s abuse.

“Once we had that story, our natural inclination was that she shouldn’t be in prison,” says Costa. “She’s served over 20 years, this abuse was never presented, and she needs to be out.” In a July 2005 meeting at the Los Angeles district attorney’s office, it seemed that District Attorney Steve Cooley thought so too, sending the Bingham lawyers a letter a few days later saying that Peagler’s culpability amounted to voluntary manslaughter and she could be released for time served. But over the next nine months the deal unraveled, which Costa attributes to internal politics at the DA’s office. “Watching them tell her that she would be out in 2005 and then circle their wagons and defend themselves at all costs was astounding to me,” says Costa. The D.A.’s office says that the deal was withdrawn after a more complete investigation determined that Peagler was not entitled to the lesser charge and that, despite Peagler’s later claims that she only told the two men to make her pimp leave her alone and not kill him, the murder was premeditated.

The Bingham lawyers dug deeper, uncovering evidence that one of the key witnesses in the case was a paid informant, which the D.A.’s office denies, and that the prosecutors knew that the witness had perjured himself on the stand. (The D.A.’s office says that while the prosecutors knew the witness wasn’t entirely truthful in his testimony, it was only on “collateral issues,” not on Peagler’s guilt.) Bingham then moved to remove the entire D.A.’s office from the case and be replaced by the state attorney general. The Los Angeles superior court agreed, but that decision was reversed by the California Court of Appeal, 2nd district in April.

Costa, who worked with domestic violence victims as a social worker before she became a lawyer, says that the firm will continue to argue for Peagler’s release with the D.A., but that they’re running out of time. Peagler was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and her oncologist says she may not live more than six months.

“Emotionally carrying the burden of trying to win’s someone release from prison is incredibly draining,” says Costa, who has filed a compassionate release request but considers it a long shot. “And now there’s even less time.”

—Francesca Heintz | July 1, 2009

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