• Ideas

Why an Oklahoma Cop’s Rape Conviction is a Major Victory

5 minute read
Charlotte Alter is a senior correspondent at TIME. She covers politics, social movements, and generational change, and hosts TIME's Person of the Week podcast. She is also the author of The Ones We've Been Waiting For: How a New Generation of Leaders Will Transform America. Her work for TIME has won a Front Page Award from the Newswoman's Club of New York and has been nominated for a GLAAD Media award.

Daniel Holtzclaw’s conviction is an example of justice being served in a year when so many have been disappointed in the criminal justice system, especially when police officers and black victims are involved.

The fact that the former Oklahoma City police officer was convicted of 18 counts of sexual assault against 13 black women isn’t just a victory for the victims. It could also represent progress toward a long overdue shift in the way our criminal justice system treats police officer offenders and rape victims, especially victims who are black. While Holtzclaw’s conviction won’t fix the irreparable damage done to the lives of the women he abused, it could be a sign that things are changing for the better, even if that change is too little, too late.

Holtzclaw’s case had all the trappings of a classic miscarriage of justice. He was a police officer with the Oklahoma City Police department (he was fired in January after the accusations surfaced). His 13 victims were black women. The youngest was 17 years old, the oldest was a 57-year old grandmother, and many had criminal records or histories of drug abuse. Prosecutors said he deliberately picked women he thought were marginalized and vulnerable because he thought they would be too scared to come forward against him, and ran background checks to select victims who had run into trouble with the law. Holtzclaw’s crimes were based on assumptions of privilege and credibility that have eroded beneath his feet. If he thought his status as a police officer would immunize him against accusations from minority women with few resources, he thought wrong.

Read More: Stoya, James Deen, and the New Shift in Rape Culture

The stories of Holtzclaw’s 13 victims are depressingly similar (Jessica Testa compiled all 13 side-by-side for Buzzfeed.) He targeted mostly African-American women, often ones who were found with drugs, or who had outstanding warrants or unpaid tickets. He usually asked them to lift their shirts so he could “search” them for drugs, and then groped them, forced them to perform oral sex on him, or raped them. He often drove his victims to remote locations. When he raped them, it was usually for about 5-10 minutes. “Who are they going to believe?” one of the victims testified. “It’s my word against his because I’m a woman and, you know, like I said, he’s a police officer.”

“He didn’t choose CEOs or soccer moms. He chose women he could count on not telling what he was doing,” prosecutor Lori McConnell said in her closing arguments. “He counted on the fact no one would believe them and no one would care.” The defense tried to destroy the credibility of the victims, and defense attorney Scott Adams said their testimony was designed to “further their own agenda.”

Holtzclaw was finally caught when a 57-year old grandmother went to the police after Holtzclaw stopped her on the way home from a dominos game and forced her to perform oral sex on him. “I wasn’t a criminal. I had no record. I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said in a press conference after the verdict. “All I can say is, I was innocent, and he just picked the wrong lady to stop that night.”

The all-white jury recommended that Holtzclaw, a former college football player who is described as “Asian or Pacific Islander” on his official forms, serve 263 years in prison for 18 rape and sexual assault charges. Holtzclaw reportedly cried and rocked back and forth as the verdict was read Thursday, on his 29th birthday. He will be sentenced in January.

Of course, Holtzclaw’s conviction isn’t necessarily going to be a deterrent to those in positions of power who choose to abuse people they see as powerless. Many rape victims never get justice. (Only 2 out of ever 100 rapists ever spend a day in jail, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network). And Hotlzclaw’s sentence will not undo the damage he’s done to his victims, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a step in the right direction. This conviction is a double-win for social justice, both for rape survivors, and for victims of police abuse.

The Associated Press found 1,000 examples of officers who lost their badges for sex crimes over a six-year period. But the AP investigation only counted states in which revoking an officer’s license was a possibility, and some big states like New York and California don’t even have that kind of decertification policy. And according to the National Police Misconduct Project, that figure is almost certainly much lower than reality. “It’s so underreported,” Sarasota police chief Bernadette DiPino told the Associated Press, “People are scared that if they call and complain about a police officer, they think every other police officer is going to be then out to get them.” That’s why it’s so remarkable that so many women came forward against Holtzclaw, because usually victims are frightened into silence.

It’s also worth pointing out that Holtzclaw was convicted by an all-white, mostly male jury– a jury which many feared would be prone to believe Holtzclaw over his black female victims. The fact that this jury chose to convict Holtzclaw shouldn’t be notable, but it is. All-white juries have a long history of discounting black victims and convicting black defendants, to the point where prosecutors often strike black jurors from the jury if the defendant is black (the Supreme Court just heard a challenge to this practice). So the fact that the all-white jury chose to believe the victims over the former cop is an example of justice being fairly applied where it historically has not been.

In a year where it can seem to many that the criminal justice system is broken beyond repair, think of this conviction as one small step in the right direction.



More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.