At first I was surprised to discover that I had not heard anything about the case of Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw being on trial for the rape and sexual assault of more than a dozen women. How could something like that not be major news? Then I started looking into the trial and I discovered that the women Holtzclaw has been found guilty of abusing were women of colour, women with troubled histories, women whose characters could be called into question, and suddenly it made sense as to why there had been very little media attention given to the case.
Sexual assault is one of those crimes we all know is massively under reported, where victims are often blamed, or made to feel guilty because of what happened to them. The system is built against the victims of rape, whatever their gender. Unfortunately, when the victims of rape are women of colour who are targeted precisely because their credibility can be so easily attacked it becomes so much harder for them.
Daniel Holtzclaw used his position as a police officer to perform background checks on the women that he assaulted. Police investigators discovered that Holtzclaw targeted black women with criminal records, with a history of drug use or sex work. He targeted these women specifically because he believed that their accusations would be ignored, that their ‘character’ would instantly dismiss their accusations. Sadly, because of who he targeted a lot of media outlets carried little coverage of the case.
That very lack of support was even evident in court proceedings as when the trial began in November many local Oklahoma activists were shocked to find the courtroom almost empty, with many women’s groups who have supported the accusers of rape in other trials absent. A local news reporter for FOX25, Tom George went on to express his surprise when he went to cover the case. ‘The first week, it was almost empty. I think there was an assumption that it would be packed.’
These sentiments of surprise were also echoed by Grace Franklin, co-founder of the community organisation OKC Artists For Justice, who said that since the news of the case broke about a year ago have reached out to many larger national groups (who they have chosen not to name) about joining their protest movement around the case, Unfortunately they received very little response to their requests.
‘It kind of fuels the feeling of separation between black so-called feminists and white feminists.’ Franklin said. ‘Why aren’t there more women out here of all shades, of all backgrounds for these women? Why are we doing this alone?’
This apparent lack of support for these victims, or lack of people wishing to be seen visibly standing with them, was something that Holtzclaw was banking on when he selected his victims. He was hoping that no one would believe them, that they would be given little to no attention and that they would be seen as the kinds of women not to be trusted.
Those views were evident as the defence attorney, Scott Addams, questioned the accusers in what has been described as an ‘aggressive’ manner. The women who came forward to report their sexual assault were questioned about their marijuana use, their drinking habits, their criminal histories and in some cases suspended drivers licenses in an attempt to undermine their credibility.
Dianne Wetendorf, who runs a counselling group in Chicago for women who have been the victims of police abuse spoke out about the way the victims of Holtzclaw’s crimes were painted as untrustworthy in court. ‘Officers count on no one believing the victim if she reports it. And they know that the word of a woman of colour is likely to be worth even less than the word of a white woman to those who matter in the criminal justice system.’
Despite the attempts to discredit the women accusing Holtzclaw of sexual assault, all thirteen women gave powerful witness statements that formed a consistent story about how Holtzclaw isolated them, assaulted them and terrorised them into remaining silent.
Holtzclaws crimes took place over the course of seven months in 2013 and 2014, during which time he assaulted women ranging in age from seventeen to fifty seven whilst working the 4pm to 2am patrol shift.
During the court proceedings one of his victims accused Holtzclaw of driving her to a field in the back of his squad car, raped her in the backseats and then proceeded to leave her there. ‘There was nothing that I could do,’ she testified, ‘he was a police officer and I was a woman.’
Another victim, a young girl of only 17, testified that Holtzclaw raped her on her mothers front porch. She told the court that he threatened her with an outstanding warrant for trespassing. ‘What am I going to do?’ She asked. ‘Call the cops? He was a cop.’ The jury convicted Holtzclaw of ever charge relating to her assault.
Another victim, who the defence attorney tried to discredit by claiming that she did not admit to having PCP on her when an initial arrested resulted in her being in hospital, told the court that Holtzclaw coerced her into performing acts of oral sex on him while she was shackled to a hospital bed. The woman testified that Holtzclaw claimed that if she cooperated with him he would have the charges against her dropped.
It was only after a report was made to the Oklahoma City sex crimes division was made by a woman who testified that Holtzclaw pulled her over and molested her during a traffic stop, forcing her to perform oral sex on him that his crimes began to come to light.
Holtzclaw was arrested on 18th June 2014 and, following more victims coming forward to testify and evidence from his patrol car GPS that place him at the alleged crimes, fired in January 2015.
During the trial Holtzclaw did not attempt to dispute the evidence collected from his vehicle GPS, that placed him at the crime scenes at the times his accusers stated, but maintained his innocence throughout the case, denying any sexual misconduct or violence.
Holtzclaw was the recipient of an outpouring of online support from people who believed his innocence, who shared their belief that he was falsely accused, even going so far as to produce t-shirts and used the hashtag #FreeTheClaw.
The defence called just one witness during the trial, an ex-girlfriend of his who testified that Holtzclaw read her Bible scriptures and that she never noticed any unusual or sexually aggressive behaviour.
Fortunately a defence that rested on attacking the characters of the victims and used an ex-girlfriend as the sole witness to try and show he was a ‘nice guy’ failed, and after 45 hours deliberation the jury found Holtzclaw guilty of a number of the charges made against him, including five counts of rape and thirteen other counts of sexual assault.
The court has recommended that Holtzclaw be sentenced to a total of 263 years in prison. District Attorney David Prater spoke about the sentencing, saying ‘We’re going to ask the judge to make sure that this defendant never sees the light of day, and we’re going to ask him to run consecutive, every count.’
Daniel Holtzclaw openly wept in court as the verdict was read out. As an added bonus, or act of justice, the final day of the court proceedings, where he cried in court as he found out he would spend the rest of his life in prison was his 29th birthday.
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