The trial for Daniel Holtzclaw, the white cop convicted for systematically sexually assaulting 13 black women during his patrol, ended Thursday. We spoke with an anti-rape organization about power imbalance, sexual violence, and the importance of taking victim testimony seriously.
Serial rapist Daniel Holtzclaw sobbed audibly from a courtroom in Oklahoma last night, repeatedly lowering his head against the desk as he sweated, winced, and released short cries. It was his 29th birthday and the former Oklahoma City police officer was listening to a jury announce their findings after four days of deliberations in a criminal case against him. Holtzclaw was found guilty of 18 of the 36 charges he faced. They include the rape and sexual assault of thirteen poor, black women whom Holtzclaw assaulted on the job. His sentencing takes place in January. With the jury's recommendation of 263 years, Holtzclaw faces nearly three centuries of incarceration.
Buzzfeed reported the testimony of his victims in full. According to their accounts, Holtzclaw targeted the most vulnerable citizens in an area where he was employed to maintain peace. There are several recurring themes throughout their accounts: Most had criminal records, and multiple were sex workers or struggled with substance abuse. According to testimony, Holtzclaw would strip and grope women under the veil of a standard search, then levy his victims' freedom against them, forcing them to perform sexual acts. Numerous survivors testified that they didn't report the crime because they didn't believe anything could be done, or that anyone would care. Calling the police felt illogical, they said, because Holtzclaw was a police officer. After suffering assault at the hands of law enforcement, they were frightened of what could happen if they spoke out.
"I didn't think that no one would believe me," one woman testified. "I feel like all police will work together and I was scared."
Jain Marsh is the Vice President of Victims Services for the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). She wrote to Broadly in an email, explaining the horror of Holtzclaw's case and the prevalence of sexual assault in the United States. "This case is certainly horrific," she said. "Unfortunately we often hear reports of horrific abuse daily on the national sexual assault hotline." These cases often involve perpetrators who are in positions of power, such as law enforcement, Marsh added.
It is a courageous act to report a crime of sexual violence and it is not something that victims do lightly
Power imbalance is a common factor in sexual assault. In Holtzclaw's case, that imbalance is extreme: He was a member of U.S. law enforcement at the time of his crimes. As a cop, Holtzclaw positioned himself above women who have far fewer resources and less cultural capital than him. Several of his victims had histories of poverty and drug addiction, which diminished their credibility in the eyes of the law. Holtzclaw's family released a statement last year when this case began: "Witness and officer testimony presented by the prosecution... is based on solicited testimony by the police department of felons, prostitutes and others who would have personal motives beyond the basic truth to fabricate their stories."
Marsh explained that the positioning of a rapist above their victim is common."We know that many perpetrators are incredibly adept at flying under the radar and often secure positions in the community that they think are beyond reproach," Marsh stated. "They often use these positions to convince victims that no one will believe them because of their status or because the victims are members of more vulnerable populations."
"Holtzclaw is an anomaly," Captain Paco Balderrama, the Public Information Officer for the Oklahoma City Police Department, wrote in an email to Broadly. "We seldom encounter this degree of criminal misconduct in a police officer." Balderrama explained that the OCPD conducts extensive background checks on police academy applicants. Somehow, Holtzclaw—who joined their police academy on September 6 2011—slipped through the cracks. "We also conduct interviews and psychological evaluations to determine their character and suitability for the job," Balderrama said. "First-line supervisors are responsible for making sure officers are performing their duties and not abusing their police powers. GPS tracks officers' whereabouts during their shifts and we are on the verge of implementing body cameras." (The GPS Balderrama refers to was used as evidence in the case against Holtzclaw. Data collected from the device correlated to the locations and times in the testimonies of Holtzclaw's victims.)
After crying in his courtroom seat, Holtzclaw was led out in handcuffs. Jezebel reported that, as he passed the jury, he looked toward them in shock and sorrow, appearing to mouth the words, "How could you do this?"
"We need to acknowledge that the majority of rape victims will never report their assaults," Marsh said. "And, when they do, we need to listen and start from a place of believing. It is a courageous act to report a crime of sexual violence and it is not something that victims do lightly. Cases like this certainly help to support the idea that reporting is worth the vulnerability of reporting and that justice is possible regardless of the perpetrator's title or stature in the community—no one is above the law."
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