In January 2016, former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was sentenced to 263 years in prison for the rape and sexual assault of 13 black women in 2013 and 2014. State prosecutors argued that Holtzclaw should serve his sentence consecutively, making the case that each survivor deserved to have justice for the individual crimes.
Holtzclaw made a career of assaulting Black women motorists during traffic stops and other instances and then scared them many of them into silence. His victims-many of whom were poor and had prior records-were too afraid to come forward.
A jury found Holtzclaw guilty on 18 out of 36 criminal charges, including three counts of procuring lewd exhibition, four counts of forcible oral sodomy, five counts of first and second-degree rape, and six counts of sexual battery in December 2015. The jury recommended that Holtzclaw serve 263 years in prison.
Three of Holtzclaw's victims delivered impact statements at the January 2016 sentencing hearing-including his youngest victim who was just 17 years old at the time of her assault. She told the court about the great damage she experienced, revealing the her life “has been upside down.”
How Hotlzclaw Chose His Victims
At least thirteen women came forward to accuse Holtzclaw of sexual assault. Many of the women had not reported the assault for fear of reprisals or fear-later confirmed by the jury's failure to find Holtzclaw guilty on all 36 of the criminal charges brought against him-that they would not be believed. At a preliminary hearing in the case, the 17-year old survivor explained her reasoning, “Who are they going to believe? It's my word against his. He's a police officer.”
This notion of “he said, she said” is a fairly common argument used to discount sexual assault survivors. And when the accused is a person in a position of power, such as a police officer, it can be even harder for survivors to get due process.
It was this very circumstance that Daniel Holtzclaw was counting on. He picked out very specific targets: women who were poor, Black, and who, in several cases, had run-ins with the police because of drugs and sex work. Because of their backgrounds these women would not make credible witnesses against him. He could act with impunity and never have to face any consequences because his victims were already considered guilty in the eyes of the law and society.
A similar case happened in Baltimore, where poor Black women were targets of sexual assault: “20 women who filed a lawsuit against the Housing Authority of Baltimore City are splitting a settlement worth almost $8 million. The lawsuit alleged that maintenance workers at various housing complexes had demanded sexual favors from the women in exchange for receiving badly needed repairs on their units.” Again, these maintenance workers, not unlike Daniel Hotlzclaw, banked on these women being both desperate and untrustworthy. They believed that they could rape women and not be held accountable.
Daniel Hotlzclaw was disabused of this power when he pulled over the wrong the woman, however. Jannie Ligons, a 57-year-old grandmother, also survived an encounter with Holtzclaw. She was the first woman to come forward. Unlike many of the other victims, she had a support system: she was supported by her daughters and her community. She helped lead the charge that prompted 12 other victims to come forward and speak truth to power.
Holtzclaw's attorney said he plans to appeal. However, the judge has previously denied Holtzclaw's request for a new trial or an evidentiary hearing. Holtzclaw is currently in jail serving his 263-year sentence.
Convictions for police in sexual assault cases are rare and hefty sentences are even rarer. Nevertheless, sexual misconduct within the police force is fairly common. Here's hoping that Holtzclaw's case will not be exception but rather the signal for a new era where police are held accountable for sexual violence.