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Former Oklahoma officer sentenced to 263 years in prison for sexual assaults

The Guardian logo The Guardian 23-01-2016 Molly Redden

A judge on Thursday sentenced Daniel Holtzclaw, the former Oklahoma City police officer convicted of raping and sexually assaulting eight different women while on duty, to 263 years in prison – a resounding win for his victims, who had called for Holtzclaw to spend the maximum number of years behind bars.

Judge Timothy Henderson read the sentence before a packed courtroom in the Oklahoma County courthouse. Dozens more packed into the hallways and into an overflow room. Several of Holtzclaw’s victims spoke before the ruling, asking the judge to levy a long prison sentence.

Court was initially delayed for several hours, a lag thought to be connected to Holtzclaw’s motion for a new trial. One day before his sentence, Holtzclaw’s attorney filed a motion with the court claiming the state withheld evidence and denied him a fair trial. The judge heard from a defense witness supporting the motion. On Thursday, the judge denied the move for a new trial.

The sentence concludes a trial that became a symbol of police abuse and the marginalization of women of color. A total of 13 women – all of them black, most of them living in troubled circumstances – testified that Holtzclaw had raped or assaulted them. (In court documents, Holtzclaw is identified as Asian or Pacific Islander; in police reports, he is identified as white.) In many cases, Holtzclaw used his knowledge of their criminal histories as a means of coercion. 

On 10 December, after 45 hours of deliberation, an all-white jury convicted Holtzclaw, 29, of assaulting eight of the women. They found Holtzclaw guilty of 18 criminal counts – five counts of rape and 13 other counts of sexual assault or sexual battery – out of a possible 36. The jury also recommended Holtzclaw serve 263 years in prison.

Holtzclaw was arrested 18 June 2014. He was charged later that year for 13 assaults between late 2013 and the day of his arrest.

Daniel Holtzclaw is pictured in a courtroom in Oklahoma City last month. © AP Daniel Holtzclaw is pictured in a courtroom in Oklahoma City last month. His choice of victims laid the groundwork for an aggressive defense. During the trial, Holtzclaw’s attorney, Scott Adams, questioned his accusers about their marijuana use, drinking, thefts and suspended driver’s licenses in an attempt to undermine their credibility.

In court and in pretrial testimony, however, the 13 accusers told broadly consistent stories about how Holtzclaw isolated them, assaulted them and terrorized them into silence.

One woman accused Holtzclaw of driving her to a field, raping her in the back of his squad car, and leaving her there. “There was nothing that I could do,” she testified. “He was a police officer and I was a woman.”

Another of his victims, a 17-year-old girl, testified that Holtzclaw raped her on her mother’s front porch. She said he threatened her with an outstanding warrant for trespassing. “What am I going to do?” she asked. “Call the cops? He was a cop.” The jury convicted Holtzclaw of every count related to her assault.

Several of Holtzclaw’s alleged victims, including some whose claims did not result in a conviction, are suing Holtzclaw and Oklahoma City in civil court. One lawsuit claims that police officials were investigating Holtzclaw for sex crimes as early as 8 May – six weeks before he assaulted his final victim – but allowed him to remain on regular duty during the inquiry.

The timing would mean Holtzclaw attacked half of the women he has been convicted of assaulting while he was under investigation for sexual assault.

Oklahoma City detectives have been portrayed as acting swiftly and deliberately upon receiving a complaint of sexual assault against a police officer. Detectives arrested Holtzclaw hours after Jannie Ligons, a 57-year-old daycare worker, reported her assault in the early morning of 18 June 2014. In pretrial testimony, police investigators said they interviewed every woman Holtzclaw had contact with in order to identify other victims.

At a December press conference following Holtzclaw’s conviction, Benjamin Crump, a prominent civil rights lawyer, promised that a string of new lawsuits would shed light on whether the city acted too slowly.

“We understand that there were other women who called before [Ligons], whose calls went unanswered,” Crump said. “We need to find out how aggressive [investigators] were. We need to find out, how could this happen so many time and nobody see what was going on? … It’s mind boggling how nobody would catch this.”

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