Saturday, December 12, 2015
Lawyer Benjamin Crump also represents Michelle O'Connell's family.
Benjamin L. Crump, a lawyer for five of the 13 women who testified against an Oklahoma City police officer accused of sexual assault, with Jannie Ligons, one of those women, on Friday. Credit Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY — Jannie Ligons stood at a news conference microphone on Friday and described her horror and defenselessness as an Oklahoma City police officer sexually assaulted her in her car during a traffic stop.
“I was so afraid, and I was out there so helpless,” Ms. Ligons said. “God’s will, he let me live. He let me live and tell this story like a lot of victims are not able to do.”
In the end, she said, “he just picked the wrong lady to stop that night.”
Looking somber but resolute, Ms. Ligons spoke a day after Daniel Holtzclaw, now a former police officer, was convicted on 18 of 36 counts of rape and other charges involving attacks on 13 black women.
Civil rights leaders described the case as another iteration of law enforcement violating the rights of black Americans — joining recent episodes involving police officers in Baltimore; Chicago; Ferguson, Mo.; and New York.
Ms. Ligons’s statement was met by applause from a crowd gathered on the steps of the Oklahoma County District Courthouse here. Her story had helped prompt the investigation that led to the case against Mr. Holtzclaw because she was what prosecutors described as his mistake: a grandmother, who — unlike Mr. Holtzclaw’s other victims — did not have a criminal record or other troubles with the law.
Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City police officer, was found guilty of sexually assaulting 13 black women on the job, and he began crying in court as the judge read the verdict. David Prater, the Oklahoma County district attorney, said, "The jury did the right thing."
Ms. Ligons’s story sounded similar to a previous complaint, leading investigators to uncover a dozen more tales of poor, vulnerable black women being exploited, and in some cases raped, by a young officer of mixed race. (One of Mr. Holtzclaw’s parents is Japanese, the other white.)
In all, 13 women of varying ages testified against Mr. Holtzclaw. And on Thursday, 12 jurors, all white, concluded that the accounts were credible enough for a conviction.
The jury recommended that Mr. Holtzclaw receive 263 years in prison, prompting him to break down in tears in court. His sentencing is scheduled for next month.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said in a telephone interview that the Oklahoma City case was surely among many others in which women did not report assaults by the police. He said he was optimistic that its meaning would resonate.
“This is one of the most outstanding cases because usually it’s covered up,” Mr. Jackson said. “I think it’s a part of a rising consciousness that black lives matter.”
The accusations against Mr. Holtzclaw were particularly grave, and distinct, involving what prosecutors described as a pattern of preying on women whose allegations would be considered less credible.
But their accounts in court and in interviews on Friday featured a common sentiment: Many of the women said they felt trapped. Several said Mr. Holtzclaw had threatened to arrest them if they did not do as he said. One described how she could see Mr. Holtzclaw’s holstered gun as she was forced to perform oral sex on him.
Sharday Hill said at the news conference on Friday that Mr. Holtzclaw had assaulted her while she was handcuffed. “I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I felt I was in survival mode, so I had to do what he wanted me to do.”
Ms. Hill earlier told the authorities: “I thought stuff like that only just really happened on movies. I couldn’t believe what was going on was really going on.”
Benjamin L. Crump, a lawyer representing five of the 13 women, said a lawsuit would follow. He said other victims did not yet want to speak publicly. “We respect that,” he said. “They’re still dealing with a lot.”
Some followers of the case said that Mr. Holtzclaw’s conviction was only a partial victory because he had been acquitted on 18 counts involving five women, indicating a lack of respect for their accusations. Some who spoke at the news conference, which included local civic leaders, updated an evocative phrase by emphasizing, “Black women matter.”
Robert Muhammad, the Southwest regional representative for Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, said he was surprised that the all-white jury had come back with a conviction.
“I am here trying to wrap my head around this,” he said. “I really got disturbed when, first and foremost, this county is 20 percent black, but yet it was an all-white jury.”
He added that while he wanted to thank the jury, “we do think the more we peel this onion back, the more we’ll find the systemic problems.”
Like many others who followed the case, he said he wanted to know how Mr. Holtzclaw had gotten away with his assaults for so long.
“What about his supervisors?” Mr. Muhammad said. “Where are the checks and balances, the audit system that shows accountability for our police and for our tax dollars?”
Although the verdict received widespread coverage, some critics said that interest in the case was slow to develop because the charges involved sexual assaults on black women. In Cosmopolitan, the writer Treva Lindsey said the case demonstrated “the unique intersection of racism and sexism in the lives of black women.”
In the online magazine The Root, Kirsten West Savali added, “These are the black women who are pushed to the margins of initiatives addressing racial injustice.”
During the trial, a lawyer for Mr. Holtzclaw, Scott Adams, questioned the character of his accusers, some of whom had faced prostitution charges and had abused drugs.
On Facebook, Mr. Holtzclaw’s supporters also focused on undermining the credibility of his accusers. They pointed out that one woman was charged with falsifying her assault claim against Mr. Holtzclaw. More than 900 people have joined the group, sharing photographs of themselves wearing T-shirts emblazoned with #Justice4DanielHoltzclaw, or pumpkins carved with “Free the Claw.”
A report released this year by the African-American Policy Forum found that black women were disproportionately sexually assaulted because they were often assumed to be promiscuous and to be less likely to report the crime.
In this case, several accusers stepped forward about assaults that prosecutors said occurred from December 2013 to June 2014. Mr. Holtzclaw was fired from the police force, arrested and charged.
“Some might not consider them model citizens,” Mr. Crump said at the news conference on Friday. “But they were citizens. They were Americans.”
The Associated Press investigated the issue of sexual assault by police officers in November and found that from 2009 to 2014, some 550 officers from 41 states had lost their law enforcement licenses for sexual assault, but not all had faced criminal charges. Mr. Holtzclaw was not included in that count.
Anthony Douglas, the president of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter, told KOCO-TV that the Holtzclaw case showed the need to protect all women, regardless of race, from predatory police officers.
“We cannot stand by and let our citizens in the state of Oklahoma, whether they be African-American, Caucasian or any woman, be sexually assaulted by a police officer,” he said.