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Refusing To Be Forgotten: Courage Of Black Women Leads To Conviction Of Rapist Cop, Demand That Sex Crimes Be Addressed

By Charlene Muhammad -National Correspondent- | Last updated: Jan 26, 2016 - 7:59:26 PM

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Supporters of the victims of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw pray after the verdicts were read for the charges against him at the Oklahoma County Courthouse in Oklahoma City, Dec. 10, 2015. Holtzclaw was convicted of raping and sexually victimizing eight women on his police beat in a minority, low-income neighborhood.

OKLAHOMA CITY—Thirteen poor, Black females took on a predatory cop, the police department and criminal justice system that cradled him, and won. 

After denying his request for a new trial based on claims prosecutors hid evidence, federal judge Timothy Henderson ordered former Oklahoma City Police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw to serve the maximum 263 years consecutively in prison for committing rapes and other sex crimes against five of them while under color of authority. 

“Justice was served today,” said Jannie Ligons, the grandmother who reported her assault to police immediately.  He had preyed on women who had drug dependency pasts or histories of incarceration, however, Ms. Ligons had no checkered past that he could level against her.  

“I just know how glad I am, and how proud I am, especially for all the victims, how we were traumatized, and all the things we had to go to,” Ms. Ligons stated.  She thanked everyone who helped them.

Facing Holtzclaw again

 A heavy, protracted gasp emanated from the courtroom’s saturated public box once Judge Henderson meted out the sentence.  Nearly 100 people crammed inside including press.  Dozens more filled the hallway just outside. 

Daniel Holtzclaw, center, listens as Gayland Gieger, right, Oklahoma County assistant district attorney, speaks during Holtzclaw's sentencing hearing in Oklahoma City, Jan. 21. At left is defense attorney Scott Adams.

The survivors, their families and attorneys who sat in the row immediately behind Mr. Holtzclaw’s family showed various signs of relief after Judge Henderson remanded him back into county jail under sheriff’s supervision and then to prison, most likely out-of-state.    

His supporters, far outnumbered by those present for the survivors, put their heads down and others stared ahead at Mr. Holtzclaw as he stood at the judge’s bench, draped in a baggy orange inmate jumpsuit, shackled by waist chains, his hands cuffed in front of him. 

The air seemed to seep out of the courtroom again as three of the women returned to the witness stand one after the other to again confront their attacker before the judge’s ruling. 

Far unlike when they testified during trial under intimidation, scrutiny, and character assassinations by Mr. Holtzclaws’ attorney and, they say his family, supporters and the local press, the survivors spoke freely as they delivered victim impact statements about how his assaults affected them.  First up was Ms. Ligons. 

She added levity to the otherwise highly tense moment when she commanded onlookers, “Don’t laugh at me,” while she slid her eyeglasses onto her face. 

“The trauma affected every aspect of my being,” she began.  The serious atmosphere returned instantly and the courtroom fell quiet enough to hear a pin drop when she said her life changed forever June 18, 2014, after the unforgettable encounter.

“The trauma has affected every aspect of my being, emotionally, physically, mentally, and financially.  The stress of the case and fear of being sexually assaulted again has caused an increase in my blood pressure,” she said. “Because of this, I’ve suffered an eye stroke, which as severely affected my eyesight,” she said. 

Not only has she suffered, but her family has been affected.  Her daughters and sisters become fearful when a police car approaches from behind.  Her children and fiancé constantly worry about her whereabouts and well-being, and he suffered a heart attack last week, she lamented.

She has mounting medical bills and other financial difficulties, and increased doctors’ appointments, court hearings, trauma therapy and meetings with prosecutors have changed her life for almost two years. 

 “I desperately want my life back, the life I had before he took it away. I pray Mr. Holtzclaw is not allowed to prey on the weak or other women ever again,” she said. 

“It will not remove the mental or emotional scars that were left here with me, however, I can rest knowing he is in prison, which allows me of being able to live my life without looking behind my shoulders,” Ms. Ligons concluded. 

The third to give her unfiltered statement, 17 at the time Holtzclaw brazenly raped her on her mother’s porch, began to cry as she told Judge Henderson her life has been upside down ever since the incident.

“I try to meditate. … It’s been hard on me and my family. … I’ve been hiding in the house.  I don’t go out … I’m terrified I will be harassed,” she stated while wiping away tears.  She said she does not know when she will get over this, but hopes that will be soon. 

As soon as she began speaking people in the public seating box began to cry, some sniffled loudly as she continued.  

“I feel like I’m dying on the inside, and I can’t live my life. … I’ve been through so much,” the young woman who recently turned 18 said.  She added, “How he violated me has made it even harder.  That’s all I have to say.”

 From the time she entered the courtroom and sat in front of the jury box filled with media, the young survivor at times, however few, displayed glimpses of normalcy and a smile here and there as she spoke to her mother and boyfriend and the prosecutor and his staff.  

She and the other survivors shared long hugs and quiet words that strengthened their bond.  She rocked from side to side, shook her leg rapidly, and clutched the arms and hands of her mother, sitting to her left, and her boyfriend to her right, even more intensely when deputies brought Mr. Holtzclaw into the courtroom. 

Before her, another survivor also cried when she read her prepared statement.  “I would have never thought a police would have misused his authority. … I hope he suffers for what he has done to each and every one of us,” she told Judge Henderson.

During a press conference after the sentencing, Ms. Ligons and Shardayreon Hill (who despite his acquittal on all counts against her maintains Mr. Holtzclaw sexually assaulted her and coerced her to perform oral sodomy on him while she was handcuffed to a hospital bed) told The Final Call how it felt to face him again in court.

“Actually when I saw him, my heart dropped,” said Ms. Ligons.  “I thought I was going to be a little afraid when I saw him, but I was not.  I was just, I don’t know.  I just didn’t feel too good looking at him, so I turned my head.  It was not a good feeling,” she told The Final Call.

“I just felt that he was going to go down for what he did, and I really, I mean, I really don’t, I’m just glad justice was served.  That’s all I can say,” Ms. Hill said. 

 “It feels good to see the reinforcements here backing these sisters, because this was not a city issue. This was a national issue,” Tyral Muhammad, Ms. Hill’s father, told reporters.  It really shows the importance of alternative news, which consistently carried the story before the national media, mainstream media got involved, he stated. 

“I particularly want to give a shout out to Charlene Muhammad for covering this issue in The Final Call Newspaper, which really opened the door,” Mr. Muhammad said.

 “She introduced me to Atty. Benjamin Crump, and once he came on board, it was over with.  I knew he had the power and the reputation to bring national attention to this situation, and I want to say how thankful I am for alternative news,” he continued.

Rape is rape

 “This is an incredible moment for these women to achieve justice.  So many people were so concerned whether they would get equal justice,” said civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents seven of the survivors in a federal civil lawsuit. 

In the hallway, his clients praised God and rejoiced with supporters as they addressed the press, but the collective was crying and reflecting on next steps rather than cheering and clapping when they exited the courtroom. 

During the Jan. 21 press conference, Atty. Crump thanked District Attorney David Prater’s office for zealously prosecuting the case on behalf of the still vulnerable women.  However, the sentence was only one aspect of them getting full justice, Atty. Crump said.

 “We ask that the city council and the city leadership of Oklahoma City treat these women like they would treat any other victims from any other side of town, from any other socio-economic level, and not to subjugate them to more attacks and abuse, and try to discredit their life experiences, because rape is rape,” said Atty. Crump.

 “It’s going to be a lifetime of healing, so don’t try to attack them and their credibility and their experiences, because you wouldn’t do that to your mother, or your sister, or your aunt,” Atty. Crump stated.

 Turning point in history

 Technically, just five of the 13 who charged they were sexually assaulted by Mr. Holtzclaw received justice, because the all-White jury of his peers only convicted him of 18 of 36 counts of rape, forcible oral sodomy and other sex crimes, they accused him of. 

The verdict denied justice for eight of the women, argued activists, who have stood with the women and who have been monitoring and raising awareness about the case.

 “What we know about sexual predators and sexual assaults, is that this just didn’t start in 2013,” said Grace Franklin, founder of OKC Artists for Justice.

 “We are attacked in our communities, in our homes, by police officers, and how does that happen in the United States?  It happens because Black women are invisible.  It happens because we are not valued like other women,” Ms. Franklin told reporters.

 “The African American community was called basically a crime-ridden, drug den of inequity, cess pool where women just running around, and you can do whatever you want on our side of town. You cannot do that on the East Side of Oklahoma City.  We’re not going to allow it,” Ms. Franklin said.

 “We’ve seen something historic happen.  A police officer has gone to prison for life for something done to Black women, and this is something for us to acknowledge, but accountability is not over.  Accountability is not just about the criminal justice system.  Accountability is about all of our communities and our media that haven’t been there for women like the OKC13,” stated Kimberlé Crenshaw, UCLA and Columbia Law Professor.

 She said the case is over, but not their suffering and people must commit to ensuring they are healed and made whole.

 Law enforcement on notice

 The unprecedented moment effectively put law enforcement on notice that Black women will report, testify and seek justice even in the presence of an all-White jury, advocacy groups indicated in a joint statement released on the day of the sentencing.

 “The world can value a Black woman, regardless of socioeconomic status or background, as a human being that is afforded the same civil rights as every other members of society. … We will reflect on the moments where we allowed egregious violations of women who didn’t have voices,” continued the statement released by OKC Artists for Justice, the Transformation Justice Coalition, the African American Policy Forum, and the National Organization for Women.

 The organizations are calling for national police reform, including a national database of officers who have been disciplined, terminated, charged and convicted of sexual misconduct while acting as or using information from their access to the policy department; mandatory training for every officer as first responders of sexual assault and domestic violence; and a zero-tolerance policy in reference to sexual misconduct enforced in every department across the country. 

Mr. Holtzclaw’s sentence comes in the wake of revelations last November by the AP that 1,000 officers lost their badges in a six-year period for rape, sodomy and other sexual assault.

Early errors

Civil Rights Attorney Barbara Arnwine said next steps include addressing some early errors in the case by the Oklahoma Police Department.

 “They had reason to know that they had somebody on their force, Mr. Holtzclaw in particular, who had committed a major crime against a woman as early as November 2013. They did not do the kind of thorough search to ensure that this would never happen again,” Atty. Arnwine said.

“What I want to say to those women is that we love you too.  That sometimes you can’t come forth.  Life is hard, but we love you, and justice loves you.  You have the same right to justice as any other person in this country. …You still are a human being and you are still walking this earth and you are entitled to vindication,” she told The Final Call.

According to Farah Tanis, executive director and co-founder of Black Women’s Blueprint,  a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based civil rights organization of men and women, 14 others traveled with her by bus and others traveled from Texas, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, and one person from Oregon to support the survivors.

 “In Oklahoma this really is a surprise, almost feels like a miracle that a police officer is actually being held accountable for doing something like this, but think of all the other places where police officers are not being held accountable, which is why we used our strategy of taking it to the U.N. in 2014,” Ms. Tanis told the Final Call. 

Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization of Women, who attended the sentencing and participated in several events prior to when asked why was it present now, she replied, “I am here now to show support for the Oklahoma 13 … It’s unfortunate NOW does not have a state organization in all of Oklahoma.  We don’t have a chapter in OKC that is active right now.  We have had one in the past,” Ms. O’Neill said.

 She had to learn about the case from the national media, she continued. “I did not hear about it, of course, from activists in OKC, because we don’t have any, but when I learned of it and started talking to my friend, including Barbara Arnwine and Kim Crenshaw, we said alright.  We got to get some real attention to this,” Ms. O’Neill continued.

 “People say, ‘Well, they were never there, and it’s only White women, and they are not interested. That is actually not the case, but I totally understand why people believe it is,’” Ms. O’Neill added.

 Justice delayed

Court proceedings were scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., but got underway almost four hours later.  As time grew closer to a start, the deputies and court clerk began issuing repetitive harsh warnings.  At one point, the lead deputy threatened anyone caught taking photos with up to 180 days in jail per the judge.  

The prosecutor came out of Judge Henderson’s chambers and told several survivors proceedings would go forth, but to take a break and return by 1:20 p.m.  The session would start at 1:30, he told them. 

Then the clerk entered and made the official announcement to the court, but just a handful of people left.  When she announced everyone had to clear the court, sounds of disappointment rang out. 

Adding insult to injury, several activists told The Final Call, the clerk then admonished, there is first-come, first-served seating, so return early enough to get a seat and be mindful not to push and shove to get back inside.  But the court had already set the tone for the frenzy to occur, people observed. 

“I think that the repeated delay of sentencing Daniel Holtzclaw is part of a delay of justice for these women. I think that everyone deserves a robust defense.  At the same time, I think these victims deserve a day where they receive justice, Brittney Cooper, an educator at Rutgers University in New Jersey said.  

“These calls to delay the trial, having supporters sit in the courtroom and then have them unceremoniously ushered out, it felt disrespectful, felt that people were toying with our emotions, felt again like the way in which the justice system cares far less about Black citizens and Black victims than it does about White citizens and White perpetrators,” Ms. Cooper said.