It was just after 9 p.m. on Thursday night when Judge Timothy Henderson entered the courtroom to read out the much-awaited verdict in the trial of a former Oklahoma City police officer accused of sexually assaulting 12 Black women and one teenage girl.
The all-white jury had deliberated for more than 40 hours behind closed doors, keeping the press, lawyers, activists, and family members of both the victims and the defendant completely in the dark for days as to what the outcome would be.
In a testament to the tension that has mounted around this case—with almost daily protests in support of the victims taking place outside the Oklahoma County Courthouse since the trial began on November 2—Judge Henderson preceded his announcement of Holtzclaw’s fate by asking for “order” in the courtroom and saying he would not tolerate “any outbursts.”
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He then read the verdict: Daniel Holtzclaw, who had just turned 29 that day, was found guilty of 18 of the 36 charges against him, including forcible oral sodomy, sexual battery, and rape in the first degree. Jurors recommended a total of 263 years of jail time for the offenses, meaning that depending on how the judge divides up the sentences, Holtzclaw could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Of the recommended 263 years, 120 are a direct result of Holtzclaw receiving four convictions for first-degree rape, each of which carries a recommended 30-year sentence. One of the victims was a teenager, just 17 years old at the time of the rape for which Holtzclaw has now been found guilty.
Jurors also slapped him with a recommended combined 68-year sentence for four counts of forcible oral sodomy, each carrying between 16 and 20 years of jail time. He was found guilty on six counts of sexual battery and three counts of “procuring lewd exhibition.” The final conviction was a 12-year sentence for rape in the second degree by instrumentation.
Half of the charges against him returned “not guilty” verdicts—18 in total, including four counts of sexual battery, one count of stalking, one count of burglary, and one count of indecent exposure.
The verdict vindicates eight of the 13 accusers who took the stand in the course of the five-week trial.
Despite a chilling absence of any major national media outlets during the trial, more than 107,000 tweets were posted with the hashtag #DanielHoltzclaw on Twitter Thursday night, as local journalists and Black Lives Matter activists shared live updates on the verdict and the mood in the courtroom.
— Tom George (@TheTomGeorge) December 11, 2015
After hearing his first guilty conviction, Holtzclaw broke down in tears, sobbing uncontrollably as the judge read off one sentence after another. After he was remanded to the custody of the Oklahoma County sheriff—where he will remain until the official sentencing on January 21—local news crews filmed clips of the victims’ families and supporters embracing one another, praying, and expressing their gratitude that “justice has been served.”
“I was overjoyed and really gratified that this case was handled in such a way that this man was not allowed to escape the consequences of his actions,” Camille Landry, co-convener of the Oklahoma City group Occupy the Corners, told Rewire in a phone interview.
“Justice is hard to come by,” she said, “but this verdict really gives me a little bit of hope that maybe all of these struggles aren’t in vain, that there’s some semblance of justice, somewhere, for some people, some time. We’ve got a long way to go, but this is a great start.”
Landry expressed frustration that some local media channels have been overplaying the possibility of a “negative” public response, saying they hope that community members will “keep the peace.”
“I find this incredibly offensive,” she said. “The organizing around this case has always been a peaceful process—we’re not the ones wreaking violence on others. Even the Oklahoma City Police Department (OCPD) made it a point to note that community leaders have conducted themselves appropriately, and activists have worked with the OCPD to keep people informed and shine a light on this process.”
“In fact,” she added, “some of the most effective witnesses against Holtzclaw were members of the police department.”
Holtzclaw was dismissed from the police force in January, following initial investigations into a complaint lodged by a then 57-year-old Black woman, the oldest of the 13 accusers and the first to come forward, that the former cop forced her to perform oral sex on him after pulling her over in a routine traffic stop.
Shortly after the verdict came down last night, the OCPD said in a Facebook post that they were “pleased with the jury’s decision … and firmly believe justice was served.”
Up until Judge Henderson read out the final verdict, however, it was anyone’s guess which way the jury would swing. Black activists in particular have come to expect a degree of immunity for those involved in violent crimes against the Black community, a reality that was driven home for many with the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin back in 2013.
“I’m still in shock about the verdict,” Rachel Anspach, a senior staff writer at the African American Policy Forum (AAPF), told Rewire. “It felt good to get some good news for once, and while his conviction will not undo the brutality that he enacted upon his victims, it will prevent him from preying on more vulnerable Black women.”
“The fact that an all-white and mostly male jury could convict Holtzclaw, particularly after the victim-blaming and -shaming tactics that the defense used during the trial, shows that some progress is being made and that our work to make visible the realities of rape and state violence may be taking hold on some level,” she added.
Anspach was referring to the defense’s trial strategy of calling the integrity of the victims’ characters into question, repeatedly referring to their past encounters with the criminal justice system and in, many cases, the women’s histories of substance dependency.
In the end, this strategy appears to have backfired, as it merely served to highlight how Daniel Holtzclaw systematically preyed upon poor and otherwise marginalized women in a low-income neighborhood on the east side of Oklahoma City that served as his patrol area between December 2013 and June 2014.
As dozens of witnesses, including forensic experts and detectives, testified, Holtzclaw went after women with existing warrants and prior criminal convictions, using this knowledge to coerce the women into sexual acts. On multiple occasions, he used his so-called suspicions of drug possession as a pretext for procuring lewd exhibition, and groping, fondling, and even penetrating his victims.
The defense evidently hoped that shaming the survivors would cause the jury to doubt the validity of their testimonies. This did not prove to be the case for eight of the accusers, but for those five women whose testimony the jury essentially deemed invalid, the defense lawyer’s tactics may indeed have been the deciding factor.
“We are pleased with the 18 counts that we received; we are not pleased with the 18 that we didn’t,” OKC Artists for Justice Co-Founder Grace Franklin said at a press conference on the steps of the Oklahoma County District Court on Friday afternoon. The group has been instrumental in mobilizing support for the victims and was the first to draw national attention to the case.
“There were five women who did not receive justice, and that is a problem,” she went on. “These women deserve to be heard … and we want to say to the nation, there has to be a conversation about sexual assault, about rape, and about the specific care that Black women and women of color need when these situations arise.”
She said the public has a tendency to not believe Black and disenfranchised women, a tendency to not value them the way other women are valued. “So today we stand to say that the 18 guilty counts are important—but the 18 not guilty counts are reflective of serious issues we have in this country.”
As the survivors themselves have testified, the fear that no one would take their word over the word of a police officer forced them to keep silent. One survivor, S. H., who testified she was handcuffed to a hospital bed when she was assaulted, said she was so shocked that she was “speechless.” Flanked by her parents at Friday’s press conference she said, “I felt scared, I didn’t know what to do. I was in survivor mode so I had to do what he was making me do.”
Holtzclaw appears to have grown accustomed to this reaction, seeming almost to take it for granted that no one would report him. He miscalculated badly the night he decided to stop J. L., his last victim and the first to report him.
Addressing a sea of reporters and television cameras Friday, J. L. said Holtzclaw fondled her and “did things she never thought a police officer would do.” She said his gun was visible throughout the assault, and all she could think was that he was going to shoot and kill her. “I kept begging him, ‘Sir, please don’t make me do this, don’t make me do this, sir,’ and the only thing I could see was my life flash before my eyes.”
Unlike many of Holtzclaw’s other victims, J. L. had no prior criminal record, no warrant for her arrest, no substance dependence issues he could leverage. So when, “by God’s will” he finally let her go, she drove straight to the police station to lodge a complaint, sparking a massive investigation and the subsequent trial.
“I guess he just picked the wrong lady to stop that night,” she said.
With the judge still undecided on how Holtzclaw will serve the recommended 263 years, groups like OKC Artists for Justice are calling for consecutive, as opposed to concurrent, sentences, using the hashtag #WeWantLife to express their demands.
One of the survivor’s mothers who addressed the press conference Friday afternoon said it would be unjust if Holtzclaw were allowed to serve his sentences concurrently. “This won’t be a just outcome for the 13 women, those 13 Black queens, who have been violated in such a harsh way,” she said. “I just want to say that I’m not satisfied and I pray that … he is not free [anytime] soon to walk these streets and maybe terrorize someone else.”
While advocates are determined to remain vigilant and continue pursuing justice for those victims who were not vindicated by Thursday’s verdict, they are also cautiously optimistic that the trial outcome represents a small step forward for justice for Black women.
“I believe this verdict is unprecedented, and represents what will hopefully be a critical step toward the visibility of Black women victims of state violence and rape, and toward a culture where we can see Black women, regardless of the circumstances of their lives, as potential victims of sexual violence,” AAPF’s Anspach stated.
“Hopefully now an increasing number of activists, journalists, and the public in general can move toward recognizing sexual assault as a form of police violence and one that we need to center in our movement to combat state violence alongside police killings,” she added.