When District Judge Timothy Henderson sentenced former police officer Daniel Holtzclaw to 263 years behind bars, Shardayreon Hill, one of his victims, told Refinery29 the first thought that came to mind was, "Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. I shouted for joy.” It’s a day Hill and other victims in Oklahoma City have been hoping for since the ex-cop was arrested and charged with the rapes and sexual assaults of 13 Black women in September of 2014. For a moment, it looked like their hopes may be dashed, when the sentencing was delayed for more than two hours by a last-minute request for a retrial. On Wednesday night, Holtzclaw’s lawyer, Scott Adams, made a last-ditch effort at keeping his client from jail, citing a Facebook post that he argued implied evidence was withheld from the defense. But the motion was ultimately denied. In a case that highlighted racial tensions between police forces and the communities they serve around the country, Holtzclaw assaulted his Black victims while on duty in a low-income neighborhood of the city, specifically targeting women whose past run-ins with the law might make them less likely to report his offenses. Even for a sexual assault trial, the prosecution was especially hard on the victims. Holtzclaw’s lawyer attacked the character of some of the victims, arguing that their histories of drug use made their testimony against the 29-year-old police officer unbelievable. "Each and every one of these people have street smarts like you can't even imagine," Adams said in court last November. On the day of sentencing, Hill told a packed courthouse she hopes “he takes this time to realize what he has done and how he affected our lives in a major way that no one will ever understand.” She continued: “He will never know the pain he caused all of us and how it changed us.” It’s in large part due to the role of activists working on behalf of the victims— who, in the absence of mainstream press, spread news of the trial under the hashtags #listentoher and #blackwomenmatter — that we know about Holtzclaw and his crimes in the first place.
“All the effort to get the national media to get these women’s stories out there, to make it important to our community and the nation was worth it."
Grace Franklin said her group, OKC Artists for Justice, which she cofounded with her friend, Candace Liger, soon after Holtzclaw was charged, has communicated with some of the victims and offered to support them however they can. The group, made up of mostly Black women, kept the city —and the country —aware of what was happening during the trial by tweeting testimony from inside the courtroom and using Facebook to organize community meetings about how offer support to the victims — all while maintaining their full-time jobs. “All the effort to get the national media to get these women’s stories out there, to make it important to our community and the nation was worth it,” Franklin said. Lawyers, activists and criminal justice experts interviewed for this story say there are a number of lessons to learn from Holtzclaw’s case. For example, while the Oklahoma City Police Department took its investigation of Holtzclaw very seriously, Franklin was concerned when Hotlzclaw’s bail was reduced from $5 million to $500,000. Consequently, he was able to post bond and was released. Given the severity of the charges, many activists and community members felt Hotlzclaw should have been held without bond. “If the survivors were white, that wouldn’t have happened,” Franklin said. “It would have stayed at $5 million. So that was the first thing that triggered us to form as a group and get out there because that was absurd to us.” Another unfortunate reality is that the wheels of justice did not turn for all of Holtzclaw’s victims. He was only convicted on 18 of the 36 charges against him; five of the 13 victims did not hear the jury find Holtzclaw guilty of charges in connection to their allegations of assault and rape on grounds there wasn’t enough evidence to convict. “It boggles the mind that the same individual was found guilty of oral sex, and then found not guilty of sexual intercourse,” said Benjamin Crump, the defense attorney who represented eight of the victims. “So you believe in one thing, but don’t believe in the other, so it was troubling to that end. But these women have been consistent that they all were raped and sexually assaulted by this guy, and that he should have been found guilty of all charges.” Breea C. Willingham, PhD, a criminal justice assistant professor at SUNY Plattsburgh, says history shows the likelihood of Holtzclaw being convicted were slim. However, when 18 guilty verdicts came down, many people felt a sense of relief we should find unsettling. “It says that we have been reduced to accepting partial victories,” said Dr. Willingham, who is writing a book on Black women and police violence. “We’ve been reduced to feeling that, ‘At least it’s something.’” There were also several legal and policing factors that helped Holtzclaw’s victims, according to Barbara Arnwine, a civil rights lawyer and president of the Transformative Justice Coalition. The Oklahoma City Police Department seriously investigated the case, and used Holtzclaw’s patrol car GPS system to collaborate his victims’ claims. By being able to independently verify the women’s claims, the prosecution was able to build a strong case against Holtzclaw. “Without it, I think this case would have gone totally different,” Arnwine said. Another challenge was the almost nonexistent mainstream media coverage. With the exception of local media, few national outlets covered the trial. Franklin believes she knows why. “Because these are poor Black women,” she said. “Otherwise, the story would have been everywhere. If Holtzclaw was a Black officer and those were white women, I promise you it would have been everywhere. And we all know it. We know it as Black people. And white people know it.”
"The Black woman is still vilified if she is not the perfect victim."
The activists in Oklahoma City faced serious challenges when trying to galvanize community support for the ex-cop’s victims. Much of OKC Artists for Justice’s work involved speaking with men about sexual violence against women in general. During community meetings, Franklin says some men would tell her, "We don’t know what really happened.’” Her response would be: “What do you mean you don’t know what really happened? [The women] told you what happened.” Farah Tanis, executive director of Black Women’s Blueprint, a Brooklyn-based social justice organization, says part of the issue is that people are too quick to assign guilt or innocence based on what they feel a “respectable victim” should act and look like. “The Black woman is still vilified if she is not the perfect victim,” said Tanis, who rode down to Oklahoma City with a van of mostly Black women to support the victims in the courtroom. “The ‘perfect victim’ is that victim that’s not the sex worker, the victim that is not using drugs or drunk driving or have a history of incarceration." “Then you have that victim who is more easily believed, but that still doesn’t guarantee you will be believed. Even if you are a professional woman and the perfect definition of victim — college degree, no criminal history, no history of sex work, married with children, churchgoing. But still, to a certain degree, there is this belief that there might have been something you did or maybe you should have fought for.” The Associated Press reports that at least 1000 police officers, jail guards, deputies, and other enforcement officials had lost their law enforcement licenses over a six-year period because of sex crimes committed on the job. That number is likely much higher because many departments do not keep detailed records of sexual misconduct of its officers or those dismissed because of it. Clearly, Holtzclaw is not alone. Now that he is at least behind bars, Hill is just looking forward to moving on with her life. “Hopefully, I can get peace mentally,” she said. “This is affecting me mentally in a major way and I just hope that it gets better, due to me knowing that he most likely will spend the rest of his life in jail and I don’t have to worry about him.”