From left: Joshua Safran, Debbie Peagler, and Nadia Costa.(Crime After Crime)

“In Judaism we have this prayer, matir asurim: To free those who are bound,” Joshua Safran tells the camera. “If someone is wrongfully imprisoned, we have an obligation to fight to free them, to liberate them.” His passion ignites his words, though his face betrays dismay and exhaustion.

Crime after Crime, a new documentary by Yoav Potash, tells the harrowing story of a California woman sentenced to life in prison for her involvement in the murder of the man who abused her. The powerful film follows two land-use lawyers for the better part of a decade as they work pro bono to free Debbie Peagler, incarcerated for more than 20 years for a crime that should have carried a maximum sentence of six years in prison.

Joshua Safran, who began working with Nadia Costa on Debbie’s case when it was reopened in 2002, is an Orthodox Jew with curly hair that holds a dark yarmulke in place, and, as Peagler herself notes in the film, an unlikely ally for the deeply Christian prisoner. Peagler, an African-American mother continuously shoved aside by a justice system that comes across as disturbingly corrupt, was routinely beaten as a teenager and forced into prostitution by a boyfriend who controlled her life with violence and abused the daughter they had together.

As time passes and justice continues to elude the team, strong relationships develop between the rookie criminal lawyers and their unfailingly positive client. Safran, who at a young age witnessed his mother be physically abused by his stepfather, finds parallels of his own life in the suffering of Debbie and her children. Peagler’s unwavering faith, witnessed in moving scenes of her leading worship services and singing with the prison choir, seems matched by Safran’s religious devotion. Early in the film he is shown putting on tefillin and praying, and in a later instance learns he missed a major development in Peagler’s case while observing Shabbat. At the end of the film he observes, “God works in mysterious ways.” It seems as good an explanation as any.

Crime After Crime is open in Manhattan, opens tomorrow in Los Angeles, and in select cities later on. For a complete list, see here.