Daniel Holtzclaw's Accusers Teach Us A Lot About Rape Culture

December 13th 2015

The serial rape trial for former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw ended Thursday when he was found guilty on 18 of 36 charges with a recommended sentence of 263 years in prison. Reading through the statements of the 13 women who testified against him, which were documented by Buzzfeed and released for the first time publicly this week, it's hard to imagine how Holtzclaw could sexually assault women in the community he patrolled. Difficult to comprehend, except for the truth that this tweet from the national Urban League on Friday points toward:

The reality is that Holtzclaw picked his victims because they were on the margins of society: poor, Black, and female. As Holtzclaw's final accuser stated at the hearing in November:

"And I was shocked and I didn’t know what to think and I didn’t know what to do, like, what am I going to do, call the cops? He was a cop."

She was only 17-years-old when she says that Holtzclaw raped her in the dark on her mother's porch. But because Holtzclaw was a white police officer preying on women of color, he knew that the end that he met on Thursday was grossly unlikely. And so did the women that came forward to accuse him of rape.

How unlikely? Here are several ways in which the U.S. criminal justice system was stacked against Holtzclaw's victims, and why Thursday's verdict is so groundbreaking.

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1. Holtzclaw's crimes were unlikely to be discovered because rape is a highly underreported crime.

Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, with at least 68 percent of rapes left unreported. (Some studies suggest it may be as high as 80 percent.) Worse, for every 100 rapes, only 7 will lead to an arrest — and only 2 of 100 rapists will spend a single day in jail. Why? A pervasive rape culture that leads women frequently to believe that they are to blame for the crime or that no one will believe their claim. This leads to stigmatization, shame, and the assumption that reporting the assault is pointless, a feeling that was expressed multiple times in the Holtzclaw trial:

“I didn’t think that no one would believe me.”

“It was nobody there but just me and him, so to me, I just took it as my word against his.”

“Who are they going to believe? It’s my word against his because I’m a woman and, you know, like I said, he’s a police officer.”

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2. Holtzclaw was unlikely to be prosecuted as a police officer, and if he serves even part of his 263 year sentence, he will beat the odds there, too.

According to the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, of 8,300 misconduct allegations against law enforcement officers between April 2009 and December 2010, only 3,238 resulted in any legal action. In the infrequent case that a police officer was prosecuted, the rates of conviction were much lower than for felony defendants in the general population. Incarcerations rates were even rarer; only 12 percent of criminal defendants who were police officers served jail time compared to almost half of defendants from non-law enforcement backgrounds. (It's also fairly easy to point to cases where police officers have been acquitted of rape specifically.)

Yet again, Holtzclaw was less likely due to his career to be brought to justice for his multiple rapes, despite the boldness of his sexual assaults, some of which reportedly occurred in uniform and in public.

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3. White juries infrequently convict white defendants. But Holtzclaw's all-white jury convicted him of half of the offenses he was charged with.

White juries more likely to convict black defendant.US News - usnews.com

As early as 1985, Cornell law professor Sheri Lynn Johnson concluded that the "race of the defendant significantly and directly affects the determination of guilt" following a review of multiple mock-jury studies. Looking at identical simulated trials, Johnson discovered that white jurors were far more likely to find Black defendants guilty than white defendants. Other studies since have raised similar conclusions about our criminal justice system. This includes a review of 700 felony trials between 2000 and 2010 in Florida by Duke University that showed that all-white juries convicted 81 percent of Black defendants while only convicting 66 percent of white defendants.

With the inequality that's pervasive in our criminal justice system, it's hard to believe that justice could ever be blind. But in this case and against all odds, it may have been.

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