In 2016, Daniel Holtzclaw became a poster child for racism, sexism, and abuse of power when he was found guilty of sexually assaulting eight at-risk black women while on duty as an Oklahoma City police officer. Publicly disavowed by the police and protested against by Black Lives Matter, these interest groups which historically butted heads found a common enemy in Holtzclaw, and called for the full crushing force of the government to come down upon him. And it did: Holtzclaw was sentenced to 263 years in prison.
But could these groups, each deeply invested in justice, have inadvertently bolstered an unsound conviction? Jennifer Holtzclaw, Daniel Holtzclaw’s sister, thinks so. I spoke with her to learn the other side of the story.
THE WHOLE ENTIRE CASE WAS BASICALLY A HORRIBLY BIASED INVESTIGATION AND ENDED IN AN UNETHICAL PROSECUTOR LYING TO THE JURORS.
At 2 a.m. on June 18th, 2014, Daniel Holtzclaw finished his shift, turned off his onboard computer (against regulation), and made his way home in his black patrol car. On the way, he pulled over 57-year-old daycare provider Jannie Ligons, who was driving without a valid license. The encounter lasted 15 minutes and resulted in a search of Ligons’ vehicle and person, but no citation. 90 minutes later, a distraught Ligons reported to police that the officer who had pulled her over had orally sodomized her in the back of his patrol car. Ligons was taken to the hospital and submitted to a rape kit. There, sex crimes detective Kim Davis took her statement. Ligons described her assailant as white, 35-45 years old, 5’7″ to 5’9″, with blonde hair and scarred skin as if from acne.
Ligons’ description of Holtzclaw wasn’t a perfect match. He was half-Japanese, half-white, 27-years-old, 6’2”, with black hair and a unscarred face. Still, detectives were able to identify him because he was the only officer in the area at that time. Holtzclaw was called in for questioning, and when asked, handed over his uniform and patrol car for testing. Holtzclaw acknowledged the stop, but denied the allegation. No DNA was found to corroborate Ligons’ account.
Normally, this scarcity of evidence would have resulted in the case being dropped. Instead, detectives Kim Davis and Rocky Gregory―moved by Ligons’ distress―launched a wider investigation. And they drew upon Ligons to produce a profile of potential victims.
DETECTIVES BELIEVED DANIEL WAS GUILTY EVEN BEFORE INTERVIEWING HIM. AND THEN FROM THAT ALLEGTION ALONE, THE DETECTIVES REVERSE-ENGINEERED THE CASE AND WENT THROUGH THE LAST SIX MONTHS OF DANIEL’S RECORDS OF WHO HE HAD PULLED OVER, AND ONLY QUESTIONED BLACK FEMALES WHO HAD RECORDS OF ARREST, PROSTITUTION, OR DRUG HISTORY.
The detectives’ cold calls produced 20 allegations of sexual impropriety, seven of which were immediately dismissed as demonstrably false. The D.A. moved forward with the remaining 13, staking their case on the alleged victims’ testimonies, a single trace of DNA, and data from the Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) tracking of Holtzclaw’s patrol vehicle.
When word got out, both the public and the media exploded. 2014 saw a flurry of activity and coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement, which began in 2013 as a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin. Again, in 2014, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson wasn’t charged for his involvement in the killing of Michael Brown, causing an uproar. Holtzclaw presented a new opportunity to hold a corrupt white cop criminally accountable for serious offenses against vulnerable black women, and the case became the next cause celebre, and a potential turning point in “400 years of racial and sexual violence against black women,” according to civil rights attorney Ben Crump. Protesters flooded the courthouse, calling for a guilty verdict and a sentence of no less than life imprisonment.
Blue Lives Matter activists did not come to Holtzclaw’s defense, and before Holtzclaw stood trial, Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty publicly fired him, stating that his alleged actions constituted “the greatest abuse of police authority I have witnessed in my 37 years as a member of this agency.”
But could the allegations be proven beyond a reasonable doubt? Holtzclaw’s attorneys argued that the state’s case not only unfairly stoked public outrage that biased the jury, it also depended upon the clumping together of 13 victims’ testimonies which presented numerous flaws and discrepancies. There were no third party witnesses. DNA evidence was only found to corroborate one accusation, but the defense argued that this minute trace of skin cells was purposefully misrepresented as “vaginal fluid” and investigators failed to look for similar minute traces of skin cells on Holtzclaw’s uniform other than the fly of his pants, which could have determined whether the trace potentially resulted from non-intimate, secondary transfer. And finally, the defense argued that the patrol car AVL data failed to corroborate the accusations―such as an alleged 5-10 minute rape taking place in a park and public school when the AVL data showed the patrol car only stopped in that location for 4 minutes.
THERE WERE 13 ACCUSERS, 36 ALLEGED CRIMES, 17 ALLEGED CRIME SCENES. THERE IS NOT A SINGLE WITNESS, NOT A SINGLE PIECE OF DIRECT FORENSIC EVIDENCE, AND YET HE GOT SENTENCED TO 263 YEARS IN PRISON.
In their decision to find Holtzclaw guilty of 8 of 13 allegations and 18 of 36 charges, the jury cherry-picked which allegations (and which parts of allegations) to believe, and seemed to be in a tug of war between reasonable doubt and the assumption that if there’s smoke, there must be fire. One has to wonder: was the most damning evidence not the evidence at all, but simply the sheer number of accusers? How should we value that number, when the investigation also produced many demonstrably false positives? Would Holtzclaw have been found guilty if each of the 13 allegations had been tried separately? If not, should he have been convicted at all?
A LOT OF PEOPLE THOUGHT, YOU KNOW, “HOW COULD HE BE INNOCENT? THERE’S SO MANY WOMEN.”
Is the fact that nearly every allegation was solicited by investigators proof that they were not genuine? No. Are the significant flaws and discrepancies in victims’ stories proof that they were lying? No. Does the evidence definitively prove that Holtzclaw is innocent? No. And yet, our criminal justice system has long aspired to adhere to Blackstone’s ratio: that it is “better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.”
DANIEL RECEIVED THE MOST NUMBER OF YEARS FOR THE ACCUSER THAT SAID THE OFFICER THAT RAPED HER WAS A SHORT, BLACK MALE. …WHEN YOU BREAK DOWN EACH OF THE ALLEGATIONS, THERE’S ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE THAT POINTS THAT HE DID ANY OF WHAT HE’S BEING ACCUSED OF.
Five years on, Holtzclaw continues to maintain his innocence, and Jennifer continues to advocate for his release. So far, however, their cries have fallen on deaf ears.
EVERYONE THAT HAS POWER IN OKLAHOMA THAT WE HAVE TRIED TO TALK TO, IT’S JUST BEEN EXTREMELY HARD, AND POLITICS DEFINITELY PLAYED A HUGE PART. …DANIEL’S GOING ON AN UPHILL BATTLE BETWEEN PEOPLE THAT DO NOT RESPECT LAW ENFORCEMENT, THEN YOU HAVE A DIFFERENT CROWD OF THE WHOLE #METOO MOVEMENT, AND THEN YOU HAVE THE RACIAL PART OF IT, THAT THIS WHITE OFFICER WAS OUT THERE RAPING BLACK WOMEN. SO A LOT OF PEOPLE JUST TAKE THAT HEADLINE AND THEN USE THAT INSTEAD OF ACTUALLY DIGGING DOWN AND LOOKING AT THE FACTS OF THE CASE.
Advocates for criminal justice reform tend to find common ground with Black Lives Matter advocates, because black and brown men are disproportionately the victims of unjust laws, overzealous law enforcement, and wrongful convictions. Not in this case. Innocence Project founding board member Jason Flom devoted an episode of his podcast, Wrongful Conviction, to Holtzclaw’s case. Kathleen Zellner, famous for her role as defense attorney for Steven Avery, Ryan Ferguson, and Mario Casciaro, is also working on Holtzclaw’s behalf.
As tempting as it is to want to put a face to massive social problems like police brutality and sexual assault, particularly against vulnerable populations, we should be consistent in standing up against the urge to rush to judgement and bring down the hammer of the law on a potentially unsound conviction, even when the stereotype of victim and perpetrator may be reversed. Regardless of whether Daniel Holtzclaw is factually innocent or not, the evidence that convicted him is arguably insufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and if we throw that standard out the window here, it will only harm those countless others, most often black and brown men, who are sent to prison through the testimonies of incentivized informants and unreliable witnesses, without robust forensic evidence, and through prosecutorial tunnel vision that leads investigators to look only for evidence that confirms their initial theories to the detriment of the truth.
PEOPLE AT THE VERY BEGINNING THOUGHT, “WELL, OF COURSE YOU THINK HE’S INNOCENT BECAUSE HE’S YOUR BROTHER,” BUT I DO WANT TO ELABORATE THAT, IF FOR WHATEVER REASON, YOU KNOW, I HAD EVER SEEN ANYTHING THAT POINTS TO DANIEL’S GUILT, TO BE HONEST, IT WOULD BE A LOT EASIER FOR ME TO BACK AWAY AND SAY, “YOU KNOW WHAT, DANIEL, YOU DESERVE EVERY SECOND BEING BEHIND BARS.” AND STILL TO THIS DAY, I HAVE NOT SEEN ONE PIECE OF EVIDENCE THAT POINTS TO HIS GUILT. SO I’M FIGHTING FOR DANIEL UNTIL THE DAY I DIE. BECAUSE I KNOW THAT HE’S INNOCENT, AND HE DESERVES TO BE FREE.