Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City police officer who last year was convicted of sexual assault against multiple Black women and one Black teenager, has been sentenced by a judge to 263 years in prison.
More than a month after the jury convicted Holtzclaw on four counts of first-degree rape, four counts of forcible oral sodomy, and six counts of sexual battery, among other charges, Judge Timothy Henderson—a former police officer—announced Thursday that Holtzclaw would serve the sentence consecutively, as opposed to concurrently.
That translates to multiple life sentences for the 29-year-old Holtzclaw.
Thursday’s proceedings were delayed for several hours due to a last-minute request by Holtzclaw’s attorneys for a new trial on the basis that key evidence had been omitted, a motion the judge eventually denied. He then heard “victim impact statements” from three of the survivors, including from Jannie Ligons, the oldest of Holtzclaw’s victims and the first to report him to the authorities.
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Cameras were not allowed inside the courtroom, but according to local journalists who live-tweeted the hearing, Ligons said she was traumatized by her encounter with Holtzclaw during which he orally sodomized her in his police car. Ligons reportedly said, “I want my life back,” and asked that Holtzclaw serve “all 263 years” so she wouldn’t have to keep “looking over her shoulders.”
Another victim named by reporters as Sherry Ellis said there would never be a day when she would forget “being violated by this man.” The youngest of Holtzclaw’s victims, a teenager who was 17 years old when Holtzclaw raped her on the front porch of her home, told the courtroom her life “has been turned upside down” since her encounter with the former officer.
The case has garnered widespread coverage from local outlets, as well as on social media, where activists and advocates gathered en masse to share live updates about the trial, which ran from November 2 until December 9, 2015. Thursday’s hearing attracted widespread attention, with journalists, residents, and activists filling the courtroom and spilling out into the corridors of the courthouse, while Twitter lit up with more than 15,000 tweets using the hashtag #DanielHoltzclaw.
The week leading up to the January 21 sentencing saw an outpouring of solidarity on Twitter, including what was called a Day of Visibility and Accountability, during which survivors of sexual assault were encouraged to share their experiences using the hashtags #SayHerName, #BlackWomenMatter, and #ItsNotOver.
Closer to Thursday’s hearing, this virtual support materialized into the physical presence of supporters hailing from several cities. One such solidarity action, the National Justice Ride for Black Women in OKC, organized by the national feminist organization Black Women’s Blueprint, brought a caravan of activists from New York City to Oklahoma to stand in support of the women Holtzclaw had brutalized.
Other organizations like the Native Alliance Against Violence also had a presence at events leading up to Henderson’s ruling.
One local group, called OKC Artists for Justice, has been largely responsible for galvanizing such widespread interest in a case that has been ignored by most national media, mobilizing community support for the 12 Black women and one Black teenager who came forward to record their testimony, and leading a major grassroots campaign aimed at raising the women’s voices during a trial that was marked by victim blaming and character assassination of the witnesses.
OKC Artists for Justice co-founder Candace Liger explained in an interview with Rewire that what began as a small collective of artists in Oklahoma City quickly snowballed into a powerful current within the larger movement for Black lives, sparking debate and dialog on the need to elevate the experiences of Black women and girls, particularly their vulnerability to sexual violence.
From organizing almost daily protests outside the courthouse, to packing the courtroom with supporters on days when survivors took the stand against Holtzclaw’s aggressive defense lawyer Scott Adams, the group drew local media coverage. Liger said that while some of the group’s initial protests brought out about a dozen demonstrators, later gatherings attracted close to 100 people.
The collective is now partnering with the African American Policy Forum (AAPF), a national advocacy organization that has long pushed for the inclusion of women in conversations around state violence and police brutality.
In a webinar hosted this past Tuesday, titled “Beyond the Holtzclaw Verdict,” AAPF curated a panel to discuss long-term solutions to the issue of sexual abuse of Black women at the hands of police personnel, a widespread but underreported phenomenon.
A recent study by the Associated Press found that more than 1,000 officers lost their badges over a six-year period for such crimes as rape, sodomy, and other forms of sexual violence. While the data is not disaggregated by race, a pattern of Black women suffering disproportionately high rates of sexual violence suggests that they likely bear a significant share of the burden of sexual misconduct by police.
The Holtzclaw trial put this very issue into focus. All of the ex-cop’s accusers were economically, politically, or socially marginalized Black females, whose testimonies further revealed that Holtzclaw preyed upon other vulnerabilities like outstanding arrest warrants or substance dependency issues to force or compel them to perform sexual acts.
All but one said they didn’t initially report the incidents for fear that no one would believe them.
Advocates like Rachel Anspach, a senior staff writer with AAPF, say Holtzclaw’s systematic abuse of mostly low-income Black women highlights the pressing need to combat racial profiling in police departments across the country by implementing the 2015 End Racial Profiling Act, as called for in the final report of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Anspach said her organization has called on law enforcement agencies to “enforce zero tolerance sexual offense policies that support victims [and] provide an environment in which victims can feel safe to report” police sexual misconduct, and other forms of sexual violence.
Liger, of OKC Artists for Justice, echoed these sentiments, adding that training police officers and first responders could have a marked impact on women’s willingness to report sexually violent encounters. Recounting an incident in which she experienced domestic violence and sexual abuse, Liger said, “When the police finally turned up at my home, I was the one with blood on my hands, and I was told that because I fought back I could be put in jail, and my kids placed in the custody of [the Department of Human Services].”
She said this prevailing reality puts women “in the very difficult situation” of being forced to choose between reporting crimes and protecting themselves against possible retaliation by the state. This is something Holtzclaw’s victims were all too familiar with, given that the police officer threatened many of them with arrest or incarceration if they didn’t submit to his sexual advances.
Strengthening reporting and investigation of sexual assaults would help fill a lacuna in official data on sexual violence: Under-counting of sexual assault cases by police departments across the country is so prevalent that between 1995 and 2012 it resulted in more than a million rapes being left out of the FBI’s national database on sexual violence, according to data compiled by Black Women’s Blueprint.
Advocates welcomed Thursday’s ruling, but many were quick to note that their work is far from over. While Henderson’s decision to slap Holtzclaw with the longest possible jail sentence sends a strong message to other possible sex offenders, the issue of Black women’s marginalization, even within larger anti-violence movements, remains a serious one.
“I think one of the biggest obstacles to including the types of police violence that women face within our overall understanding of anti-Black state violence is that oftentimes it is not as visible as the violence experienced by Black men,” Anspach told Rewire. “While both men and women are subject to police violence in public spaces, for instance, while driving, Black women are more vulnerable to experiencing violence in private spaces. We saw that with Holtzclaw’s victims, where some of the women were brutalized in their own homes, on their own porches, or in their hospital beds. Now is the time to expand our idea of where police brutality takes place, and who can be a victim of police violence.”
For Liger, the road ahead is a long one, littered with hurdles such as the need for widespread changes in policing and far-reaching legislative reforms. Thursday’s ruling represents for her a small step in the right direction.
“The main lesson I’ve learned throughout all of this is that we are more powerful than we think,” she said. “If we encounter an issue, we’ve got to talk about it and move on it, because you can’t really garner support without action. People need to see that you’re willing to stand up and do something, willing to ruffle some feathers, before they back you. But they will back you in the end.”