For months, accusers, authorities and now an Oklahoma jury say, Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw preyed on vulnerable women. During traffic stops and interrogations, in the back of his police car or in their own homes, he used the threat of arrest to force women to submit to sexual assault and rape. Many of his victims had criminal records or histories of drug use; most lived in the low-income neighborhood where he patrolled. All of them were African American.
That’s why he targeted them, prosecutor Lori McConnell argued.
“He didn’t choose CEOs or soccer moms; he chose women he could count on not telling what he was doing,” McConnell said of the former police officer during the closing arguments of a trial that drew national attention, according to Reuters. “He counted on the fact no one would believe them and no one would care.”
Until the early morning hours of June 18, 2014, that calculation paid off. Then he stopped J.L.
The 57-year-old grandmother, identified in court documents only by those initials, said she was driving home from a dominoes game with friends when Holtzclaw pulled her over and told her to pull up her shirt and pull down her pants, according to the Associated Press.
She was sitting in his patrol car when he unzipped his pants and moved toward her. “No sir,” she pleaded.
But she could see the officer’s holstered gun at the edge of her vision.
“My God,” J.L. recalled thinking, “he’s going to kill me.”
Terrified, she briefly performed oral sex.
Finally he backed away from the car, and she stood up. She watched him walk away, still afraid that he might shoot her.
“The only thing I could say was, ‘Thank you, sir. Thank you, sir, for not taking me to jail,'” J.L. testified, according to BuzzFeed.
As soon as it was over, J.L. drove to her daughter’s house in tears. Together they hurried to report the assault to police.
Soon J.L. was talking to Kim Davis, the department’s sex crimes detective on call. To Davis, the account sounded remarkably similar to another assault complaint from about five weeks earlier — perhaps the same police officer was responsible.
With that, the case against Holtzclaw began to build. Eventually the former college football star and three-year veteran of the Oklahoma City police force would stand accused of 36 counts of abuse against 13 women. On Thursday, he was convicted of 18 of those crimes arising from the assaults of eight of the 13 women, according to the Associated Press. A jury recommended that he be sentenced to 263 years in jail.
Holtzclaw’s conviction largely stems from his one “mistake,” as prosecutors put it — the mistake of stopping J.L.
The majority of those who said they’d been abused by Holtzclaw were middle-aged women with criminal records, though the youngest was just 17. They were women who turned up outstanding warrants or previous arrests when he ran background checks on them, or who were carrying drugs or drug paraphernalia when he came across them on patrol.
“Not only is this individual stopping women who fit a profile of members of our society who are confronted — rightly or wrongly — by police officers all the time,” argued Assistant District Attorney Gayland Gieger, according to BuzzFeed. “He identifies a vulnerable society that without exception — except one — have an attitude for ‘What good is it gonna do? He’s a police officer. Who’s going to believe me?’”
Most of the women who testified against the former cop said that they did not think going to the police with their experiences would have any effect.
“What’s the good of telling on the police?” asked a teenager who prosecutors contended was raped by Holtzclaw on the porch of her mother’s home. She was 17 at the time.
“What kind of police do you call on the police?”
The girl said she was first approached by Holtzclaw in May 2014 during an argument with two friends. He told her he’d found a warrant for trespassing on her, and told her to deal with it before she turned 18.
Later that day, he stopped her while walking and drove her to her mother’s house in the northwest part of the city. Inside the building’s enclosed porch, he told her he had to search her.
“He started searching me…. He stuck his hands up under my shirt, under my bra and touched my breasts,” she testified, according to the Oklahoman.
Then he bent her over a chair and raped her.
The girl said she had been raped before, in incidents unrelated to the Holtzclaw case, but she’d never reported any of them. She didn’t think anyone would believe her. She wasn’t sure it would make a difference even if they did.
As another accuser put it, according to the Oklahoman, “I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I’m a black female.”
That testimony encapsulated what made the tense case so controversial — especially after an all-white jury was selected. Many critics believed that the deck was stacked against Holtzclaw’s accusers, who were “black, poor, and powerless,” and therefore less likely to be believed, Goldie Taylor wrote in the Daily Beast.
“Holtzclaw knew we wouldn’t give a damn. That’s why he chose them,” she added.
Holtzclaw has been identified in court records as Asian or Pacific Islander.
Activists and analysts accused mainstream media outlets of failing to cover the case because the women weren’t “perfect” victims. They also condemned defense attorney Scott Adams’s cross examination of the accusers, which focused a great deal on their criminal records and drug abuse.
“A rape case is always difficult. A survivor is always on trial,” Grace Franklin, co-founder of an Oklahoma community group that rallied around the case, told Ebony. “When you add race, poverty and lack of education and contact with the system, it’s an even more brutal assault to watch.”
During the trial, Adams pointed out that one accuser tested positive for PCP and marijuana before appearing on the stand; others had stories that changed during the course of the investigation.
These facts undermined the accusers’ credibility, Adams argued.
“The witnesses don’t care about the truth. To them, the truth is whatever it is to further their own agenda,” he said, according to Reuters.
But J.L. was not like Holtzclaw’s other victims, BuzzFeed reported. She was not from the mostly low-income neighborhood where he patrolled. She had no criminal record. She was in a position to believe that if she went to police, something would be done.
Her complaint led to Holtzclaw’s suspension, the same day it was filed. And it launched a months-long investigation that brought investigators to 12 other women who never thought they’d have their stories told.
Davis, the sex crimes detective who initially spoke to J.L., recalled speaking to one woman four months after an encounter with Holtzclaw outside her home.
She asked if the woman knew why they were meeting, according to the AP. The woman knew.
“She said, ‘How do you know? Did he confess?'” Davis testified.
When Holtzclaw’s arrest was announced two months after her assault, J.L. was “devastated,” she told KWTV.
“My heart started beating fast, my hands started shaking,” she said. “Only thing I could do was turn my head to keep the tears away. Nothing else would come to my mind but that’s him!”
On Thursday, Holtzclaw cried as the verdict was read. Jurors had deliberated for more than 40 hours over four days, according to CNN.
But the Oklahoma City Police Department welcomed the conviction in a statement Thursday.
“We are satisfied with the jury’s decision,” it read “and firmly believe justice was served.”