UPDATE 12/10/2015, 10:20 P.M.: Daniel Holtzclaw was found guilty Thursday evening of five counts of rape and an additional 13 counts of sexual assault against eight of his accusers. He faces life in prison when he is sentenced Jan. 21.
Daniel Holtzclaw should be a household name. He should be on the front page of every newspaper in the country. His criminal trial should be featured in the A-blocks of national news broadcasts.
We should be able recognize him on sight. We should be able to number and name the horrendous crimes he committed. Should he ever walk the streets again, he should enjoy not a single moment of anonymity.
Holtzclaw, a 28-year-old former Oklahoma City police officer, is a sexual predator who prosecutors say used his badge to rape at least 13 women over a seven-month period. The victims of his increasingly brazen pattern of attacks, prosecutors say, included an underage girl and a grandmother. Ranging in age from 17 to 57, all but one are black and all live in the same poverty-stricken, predominantly African-American neighborhood in the northeast section of the city.
They were picked because they were black and poor. They were picked because the perpetrator thought nobody would give a damn. Two days after the jury began its deliberations, there was a growing unease about the potential for a not-guilty verdict.
On Wednesday morning, eight men and four women filed into an Oklahoma courtroom and began their third day of deliberations. If convicted, Holtzclaw could face life in prison for 36 felony charges of rape, forcible oral sodomy, burglary, and sexual battery. [Ed: He was convicted on five counts of rape and 13 counts of sexual assault.] It is worth noting that while the city population is nearly 40 percent minority, the jury panel is all white.
Some of the accusers—BuzzFeed documented their testimony on Wednesday—said the officer violated them in their own homes while wearing his department-issued uniform. One woman testified that after Holtzclaw ran her name and found an active warrant, he took her to an abandoned school where he raped her. Another said she was forced to perform sex acts on the side of the road. Another said she was sexually violated while handcuffed to a hospital bed. Investigators said they found DNA, from what some believe is an unknown 14th victim, inside the crotch of his uniform.
The last accuser to testify was only 17 when, she said, Holtzclaw raped her on her mother’s porch just after dark. The officer first told her he needed to search her for drugs, she testified. He first groped her under her clothes before pushing his fingers into her vagina, she said, then he unzipped the fly of his trousers and raped her. The youngest of the accusers—some of them suspected of prostitution or drug possession, others with an active warrant—she wondered out loud: “What kind of police do you call on the police?”
For too many, living on the margins and with no real voice in the system, the answer is: nobody.
At 6-foot-1 and 260 pounds, the former Eastern Michigan football player used threats of violence and arrest to ensure their silence. Holtzclaw was betting on that. He was betting that, if they ever talked, we wouldn’t care. Once arrested and headed for trial, he had to be banking on at least a majority white jury. Three black men were reportedly struck from the jury panel.
He didn’t go after doctors, lawyers, housewives, and schoolteachers in a white suburb, Assistant District Attorney Lori McConnell said. Holtzclaw targeted and preyed on women he thought no one would believe, women who didn’t have the power to push an investigation or to demand his arrest.
“Who will believe these women, and who will care?” McConnell said was Holtzclaw’s attitude.
Indeed, in the end, most were afraid to come forward, afraid no one would believe them, afraid that they themselves would be arrested. They weren’t the kind of women who make for “good victims” on the evening news or on the witness stand. Even if identified, they would be hesitant to speak out.
It wasn’t until a 50-something-year-old grandmother came forward that detectives took a real interest in the case. She said Holtzclaw “snickered” and “grinned” as he forced her into oral sodomy during a traffic stop.
“‘Oh, my God, he’s going to kill me,’” she testified. “That’s what I kept saying to myself.”
Holtzclaw was placed on administrative leave and eventually arrested, after investigators used GPS tracking devices to corroborate the accusers’ stories. He was fired in January 2015.
All too often, despite the presence of physical evidence, as a society we refuse to believe black women can be victims or survivors of sexual violence. The scales are further tipped when the assailant is wearing a badge. After all, he was an officer of the law and they were a collection of suspected prostitutes and drug addicts.
The Holtzclaw defense team, which has denied the charges, is banking on the notion that an all-white jury won’t believe the accusers and that they will believe any sexual acts that took place were consensual. Invariably, over the course of the trial, the accusers were cast as liars and criminals whose testimony could not be trusted. Meanwhile, his defense attorneys described Holtzclaw as a model police officer who had been on the force for three years and was an “all-American good guy.”
Curiously, the case—the allegations, the investigation, and the trial—has largely escaped widespread media coverage. The silence, save for a spate of bloggers and a handful of news stories about the trial, has been deafening. The women, the case, the horrific nature of the crimes committed by a sworn officer have been all but invisible.
In too many newsrooms, a story doesn’t get real attention until a college football team threatens to walk out or thousands take to the streets in protest. Until a bridge or highway gets blocked or a hunger strike takes root in a statehouse, we’ve got other things to do. Unfortunately, we don’t take notice until somebody sets a drugstore on fire or a reporter gets arrested in a fast-food restaurant. For too many of us, the story doesn’t get real attention until we think it could happen to us—until we can see ourselves living the life of the victim.
Too many of us cannot imagine ourselves in the same shoes as an Oklahoma prostitute, a crack addict, or a teenage runaway. We cannot see ourselves—our daughters, our sisters, or our mothers—knowingly living under the watchful eyes of an unrepentant predator. We cannot imagine what it’s like to have no voice. We cannot imagine ourselves black, poor, and powerless.
Holtzclaw knew we wouldn’t give a damn. That’s why he chose them.