Four weeks into the trial of Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City police officer charged with the sexual abuse or rape of 13 different women, the prosecution has drawn a picture of a predator who followed a cynical calculus: because his victims were black, living on the margins, and had criminal histories, he was confident no one would believe them.
Holtzclaw, 28, is said to have methodically targeted black women with criminal records or a history of drug use or sex work for seven months while he worked the 4pm to 2am patrol. For all but one of his alleged victims, police investigators claim, Holtzclaw used his position on the force to run background checks for outstanding warrants or other means by which to coerce sex.
But to the alarm of many abuse victim advocates, Holtzclaw’s emerging defense has parallels to what prosecutors claim were the former officer’s real-time calculations. His attorney has aggressively questioned his accusers about their marijuana use, drinking and suspended drivers licenses in an attempt to undermine their credibility.
The whole episode follows a predictable pattern, one advocate said. “Officers count on no one believing the victim if she reports,” said Diane Wetendorf, who runs a counseling group in Chicago for women who are victims of police abuse. “And [they] know that the word of a woman of color is likely to be worth even less than the word of a white woman to those who matter in the criminal justice system.”
Tuesday was the 13th day of a grueling trial. The prosecutor has called more than 40 witnesses so far, and nine of Holtzclaw’s accusers have taken the stand. The defense may call up to 74 witnesses.
“There was nothing that I could do,” said a woman who testified on Monday . She accused Holtzclaw of driving her to a field, raping her in the back of his squad car, and leaving her there. “He was a police officer and I was a woman.”
Another alleged victim is accusing the former officer of forcing her to perform oral sex while she was under the influence of drugs and handcuffed to a hospital bed. Holtzclaw, the woman claims, implied that he could have her charges dropped in return.
“I didn’t think that no one would believe me,” the woman testified in a pre-trial hearing, according to the Associated Press. “I feel like all police will work together.” The 17-year-old echoed her fears: “What am I going to do? Call the cops? He was a cop.”
Several women said Holtzclaw ordered them to lift their shirts so he could search for drugs, and then he fondled them. Yet another woman claims that Holtzclaw gave her a choice: rape or jail.
Oklahoma City law enforcement arrested Holtzclaw on 18 June 2014. The previous night, Holtzclaw is accused of pulling over a 57-year-old daycare worker and molesting her during the traffic stop. Holtzclaw then ordered her to perform oral sex, his gun in plain view, she has testified.
The woman made an immediate report to the Oklahoma City sex crimes division. Detectives arrested Holtzclaw in the afternoon. Before long, the investigative team connected Hotlzclaw with other reports of sexual abuse against unnamed officers. GPS evidence from his patrol car also linked Holtzclaw to the alleged crimes. Holtzclaw was fired from the force in January 2015.
Holtzclaw does not contest that he encountered the women, but he maintains his innocence. He has a dedicated contingent of online supporters using the hashtag #FreeTheClaw.
On the first full day of testimony, Holtzclaw’s attorney, Scott Adams, grilled the woman whose complaint led to Hotlzclaw’s arrest about marijuana use and her suspended driver’s license. The woman’s daughter and fiance also testified, about her physical and mental deterioration. Adamsinterrogated them about their criminal backgrounds.
Adams asked another woman why she didn’t report the crime to police right away. He then called attention to her multiple drug-related felonies. That woman was one of two to testify against Holtzclaw while in pretrial custody of the Oklahoma County jail. She was dressed in an orange jumpsuit and wore ankle- and handcuffs for the duration of her court appearance. Adams declined to comment for this article.
The accusers make up just a fraction of an extensive witness list. In court filings, the prosecution indicated it would call as many as 175 witnesses , including investigating officers and forensic analysts.
Still, the 13 women are the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case. And advocates for victims of police abuse see a difficult task ahead for the prosecution – which is trying the case before an all-white jury. (Court documents indicate Holtzclaw is Asian or Pacific Islander.)
“These cases are so difficult to prosecute because the defense attorneys go after the victims’ credibility in court,” said Wetendorf, the counselor. “In my experience working with victims of police abuse, officers do target vulnerable women, particularly drug addicts, alcoholics and prostitutes. They are confident that ‘no one will believe’ these victims. Where women of color are available as targets, they are even easier prey.”
Indeed, some racial justice activists are frustrated the allegations of abuse against Holtzclaw have not garnered the same attention as the police-involved shootings that have killed black men. At the start of the trial, in early November, local activists were surprised to find the courtroom empty of the women’s groups that have supported other accusers in police abuse cases.
An AP investigation in early November found that 550 police officers were terminated for sexual abuses that ranged from fondling to rape. Far fewer faced criminal charges and were ultimately convicted.
Rachel Anspach, of the African American Policy Forum, noted that black women are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse by police. This was one of the findings in the Say her Name report the thinktank published earlier this year.
“It is a sign of progress that Holtzclaw’s case has actually gone to trial,” Anspach said. But, she added, “Historically, we’ve seen the justice system hasn’t protected black women from sexual assault.”