Somebody should be in the courtroom watching out for the interests of the 13 Black women who have accused former Oklahoma City policeman Daniel Holtzclaw of rape and sexual assault. Even the prosecution can’t get it right.
Twice this week, accusers appeared in court wearing orange jailhouse scrubs, handcuffs and leg irons as they testified in the sexual assault trial of Holtzclaw, 28, according to media reports and other court watchers.
The former cop faces 36 counts of rape, forcible sodomy, sexual battery, stalking and other charges that could lead to life in prison for acts he is accused of committing between December 2013 and June 2014 while working as an officer. Holtzclaw has declined to testify in his defense.
One woman said Holtzclaw touched her breasts and genitals after he stopped her walking down the street. Another woman told jurors he made her pull her shirt up and panties down, perform oral sex, then bent her over to rape her. Every accuser tells a similar story of being pulled over and having Holtzclaw run background checks to look for outstanding warrants or conduct drug searches, forcing them to have sex to avoid arrest.
“What kind of police do you call on the police?" a witness asked Tuesday, describing being raped by Holtzclaw on her mother’s front porch when she was 17.
Meanwhile, Holtzclaw, also in police custody, has been allowed to come to court dressed in street clothes because it is prejudicial for defendants to appear dressed for the place they’ve trying to avoid — prison, according to Grace Franklin, a co-founder of OKC Artists for Justice.
This discrepancy is just one of the reasons the Oklahoma City-based group makes sure a member or ally is in the courtroom at all times so somebody has the women’s backs. The all-White jury, comprised of eight men and four women, chosen after every potential eligible Black juror was dismissed, is another sore spot. Black lives might matter to some, but cases where they don't keep piling up, from the Laquan McDonald police shooting in Chicago and subsequent cover-up to the trial for officers accused of killing Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Distrust of the American justice system is palpable.
Franklin can’t understand why the prosecution didn’t make an effort to have the women dressed in a way that preserved their dignity on the stand. Her group was ready to provide clothing and whatever else was needed to ready the women for court. Franklin describes a scene Tuesday where “literally four guards” escorted a shackled witness into the courtroom.
“When you’re in the county [jail], you can’t get your hair done or do any prepping for court.” Franklin explains. “They were defeated at first. After all, everybody is White; the defense is White, the prosecution is White, and the judge is White, and then they have to get on the stand and be badgered.”
Holding the women’s past crimes and sins against them appears to be the chosen defense strategy. To say Scott Adams, Holtzclaw’s defense attorney, has challenged their credibility, checked them on inconsistencies and run down exhaustive accounts of their arrest records is an understatement. He also used the women’s lack of language skills against them, such as using the wrong verb tense, to suggest they were not telling the truth instead of simply not knowing the correct tense to use when trying to pin them down on specific dates, Franklin says.
“He would try to trip them up on little things like that, like if they said ‘were’ or “was’ or “I had gone,” Franklin says. “A rape case is always difficult. A survivor is always on trial. When you add race, poverty and lack of education and contact with the system, it’s an even more brutal assault to watch.”
Holtzclaw’s family has been in court, including his father, an Enid, Okla., officer. Court-watchers have noticed how people sitting on the side dominated by Holtzclaw’s supporters have “snickered a bit when we’ve had a survivor speaking” because of the lack of subject-verb agreement, Franklin says. “Or if they used slang, you could hear the other side saying ‘ugh, ugh,” just very disrespectful and very intimidating.”
During all of this, Holtzclaw has been staring down witnesses, a pose he adopted after the first two women testified, Franklin says: “There’s been a lot of non-verbal intimidation happening.”
While residents and activists are on the ground in Oklahoma City watching the case unfold, the lack of full-court media coverage has left a sour taste elsewhere. Does the fact the accusers names are not being revealed, as is customary in media coverage of rape, contribute to the failure of this story to latch onto the public imagination?
“I would say no,” says Dr. Kali Gross, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin, who specializes in Black women’s incarceration and African-American studies.
“I remember the Central Park Jogger,” says Gross, noting Trisha Meili’s name was not mentioned until she chose to reveal it years later. That “didn’t detract one iota from the time of the demonization of the Black and Latino boys wrongly accused and convicted. In this era of social media, we should be seeing way more coverage given the scope of the victims, including one who was a minor.”
Because these women aren’t innocents, they are being forced to prove their innocence, while Holztclaw is being treated to optics that support his claim to purity based on his proximity to whiteness as a biracial man who is White and Asian, Gross says: “He benefits from the social mantel of whiteness, and we see him benefit greatly from that.”
Texas-based writer and activist Jessica Luther adds: “Holtzclaw clearly went after women he didn't think anyone would care about and that's been replicated in the media coverage around this.”
Franklin and Gross agree this case is just another manifestation of the erasure of Black women, within the Black community and outside of it, which is why it’s important to keep raising awareness, even if mainline feminist organizations such as the National Organization for Women or the YWCA don't.
And while the women’s past issues are no justification for violating them, Franklin says, a close look at their (mostly) long-past transgressions add up to victimless crimes that only hurt themselves, if anyone. Many have been involved with drugs, a phenomenon currently being redefined more compassionately now that more Whites have succumbed to the lure of heroin.
Some of the women also have been involved with prostitution or may have had outstanding warrants, which speaks to poverty more than anything because a person can get a warrant for an unpaid traffic ticket after all, Franklin says. She notes the oldest victim had a suspended license and was arrested once for being in an illegal juke joint.
“These are not the Lifetime movie women where it’s tied up in a bow at the end,” Franklin says. “These are women who have had some struggles in their lives. They’re just disenfranchised women.”
And that’s why Franklin and her friends won’t let this go: “This case has been important to me because it happened on my side of town, it happened to Black women, and it was thoroughly being ignored, and as a poet and activist, I couldn’t let that slide.”
Closing arguments will be heard Monday.
Deborah Douglas is a Chicago-based writer.