The women were teenagers and grandmothers. Most were living on the margins. All of them were black. And during a month-long trial that became a symbol of police predation, they formed a bleak parade of 13 witnesses who accused a former Oklahoma City officer of using his badge to coerce sex acts and rape.
On Thursday, after 45 hours of deliberation, a jury convicted Daniel Holtzclaw, 29, on five counts of rape and 13 other counts of sexual assault, including six of sexual battery, against eight of the women.
The convictions included four for first-degree rape, which carries a possible sentence of life in prison. He will appear in court on 21 January for sentencing.
Holtzclaw was cleared of a further 18 of the 36 charges he faced, including rape, sexual battery, burglary, indecent exposure and stalking.
His conviction is likely to be viewed as a key moment of accountability for law enforcement officers who abuse their position: out of the hundreds of police officers terminated for sexual abuse in recent years, only a small number faced criminal charges and even fewer were convicted. And black women are especially liable to be their targets.
Still, the case did not attract the level of attention that activists and media outlets have paid to other accusations of rape or police abuse. Some racial justice activists were frustrated that the trial did not generate the same coverage as police-involved shootings that have killed black men. At the start of the trial, in early November, local activists were surprised to find the courtroom empty of the women’s groups that have supported accusers in other rape trials. And major networks carried little to no coverage of the trial or its outcome.
Many attributed the low visibility of the case to the profile of the victims: vulnerable women of color with troubled histories. Holtzclaw, police investigators found, methodically targeted black women with criminal records or a history of drug use or sex work. For all but one of his targets, police investigators said, the former officer used his position on the force to run background checks for outstanding warrants or other means by which to coerce sex.
An advocate who watched the trial unfold said the allegations fit a familiar pattern. “Officers count on no one believing the victim if she reports,” said Diane Wetendorf, who runs a counseling group in Chicago for women who are victims of police abuse. “And [they] know that the word of a woman of color is likely to be worth even less than the word of a white woman to those who matter in the criminal justice system.”
Indeed, Holtzclaw’s choice of victims laid the groundwork for an aggressive defense. His attorney, Scott Adams, aggressively questioned his accusers about their marijuana use, drinking, thefts, and suspended driver’s licenses in an attempt to undermine their credibility.
In court and in pretrial testimony, however, the 13 accusers told broadly consistent stories about how Holtzclaw isolated them, assaulted them, and terrorized them into silence.
One woman accused Holtzclaw of driving her to a field, raping her in the back of his squad car, and leaving her there. “There was nothing that I could do,” she testified. “He was a police officer and I was a woman.”
Another of his victims, a 17-year-old girl, testified that Holtzclaw raped her on her mother’s front porch. She said he threatened her with an outstanding warrantfor trespassing. “What am I going to do?” she asked. “Call the cops? He was a cop.” The jury convicted Holtzclaw of every count related to her assault.
Another woman said the former officer forced her to perform oral sex while she was under the influence of drugs and handcuffed to a hospital bed. Holtzclaw, the woman testified, implied that he could have her charges dropped in return. “I didn’t think that no one would believe me,” the woman testified in a pre-trial hearing. “I feel like all police will work together.”
Holtzclaw’s crimes took place over seven months in 2013 and 2014 while he worked the 4pm to 2am patrol.Oklahoma City law enforcement arrested Holtzclaw on 18 June 2014. The previous night, he had pulled over a 57-year-old daycare worker and molesting her during the traffic stop. Holtzclaw then ordered her to perform oral sex, his gun in plain view, she has testified.
The woman made an immediate report to the Oklahoma City sex crimes division. Detectives arrested Holtzclaw in the afternoon. Before long, the investigative team connected Holtzclaw with other reports of sexual abuse against unnamed officers. GPS evidence from his patrol car also linked Holtzclaw to the alleged crimes.
Holtzclaw was fired from the force in January 2015.
“The Oklahoma City police department is pleased with the jury’s decision,” the law enforcement agency said in a statement on Thursday night. “We are proud of our detectives and prosecutors for a job well done … [We] firmly believe justice was served.”
— Adam Snider (@AdamSniderNews) December 11, 2015
During the trial, Holtzclaw did not contest that he encountered the women, but he maintained his innocence. He had a dedicated contingent of online supporters using the hashtag #FreeTheClaw. The defense called just one witness, a former girlfriend of Holtzclaw’s who testified he never exhibited sexually aggressive or inappropriate behavior around her.
The verdict will surprise advocates who were steeling themselves for an acquittal.
Legal experts noted that Holtzclaw’s defense harnessed powerful stereotypes about rape victims. His attorney noted that his accusers waited months to report his crimes and that they were not “perfect victims” or “perfect accusers”. The case unfolded before an all-white jury. (Court documents indicate Holtzclaw is Asian or Pacific Islander.)
“These cases are so difficult to prosecute because the defense attorneys go after the victims’ credibility in court,” said Wetendorf. “In my experience working with victims of police abuse, officers do target vulnerable women, particularly drug addicts, alcoholics and prostitutes.
“They are confident that ‘no one will believe’ these victims. Where women of color are available as targets, they are even easier prey.”
Rachel Anspach, of the African American Policy Forum, considered it a a sign of progress that Holtzclaw’s case even went to trial. “Historically, we’ve seen the justice system hasn’t protected black women from sexual assault,” she said.