Officer guilty of raping black women 'picked the wrong lady'

Photo: Sue Ogrocki / AP

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A "serial rapist with a badge" who faces many years in prison for raping black women on his police beat was caught because of the courage of a grandmother who he pulled over and sexually assaulted, her lawyer said Friday.

"He just picked the wrong lady to stop that night," said Jannie Ligons, who complained to the police department and then called a local TV station, triggering an investigation that led to charges Daniel Holtzlaw assaulted 13 women before he was fired from the Oklahoma City Police Department.

The conviction of Holtzclaw Thursday night on rape, sexual battery and other charges should send a strong message nationwide, said attorney Benjamin Crump, who said he plans to sue the city for civil damages.

"Black women's lives matter. It matters just as if this were a group of 13 white women," Crump said.

Jurors found Holtzclaw, who turned 29 on Thursday, guilty of 18 counts involving eight of the women, and acquitted him of charges involving five other women he encountered while on night patrol in a minority, low-income neighborhood. They recommended 263 years, including 30-year sentences for each of four first-degree rape convictions.

Flanked by her family and a group of African-American activists outside the Oklahoma City courthouse, Ligons said she knew she had done nothing wrong when Holtzclaw pulled her over and assaulted her.

"I was out there alone and helpless, didn't know what to do. In my mind, all I could think of was that he was going to shoot me, he was gonna kill me," said Ligons, a daycare worker in her 50s who was pulled over after playing dominos with friends. "He did things to me that I didn't think a police officer would do."

With the support of her daughters, Ligons said she immediately went to police and then to the media, triggering the probe that led to what many praised as justice on Friday. "I came forward," she said. "I wanted to make sure this wouldn't happen again, no way no how."

Investigators found other victims through computer records of the background checks Holtzclaw had requested and GPS data from his squad car that corroborated their testimony. He was fired and then jailed as other victims emerged.

Sexual misconduct committed by law enforcement officers is a problem that has concerned police chiefs for years.

Holtzclaw's case was among those examined in a yearlong Associated Press investigation that revealed about 1,000 officers nationwide had lost their licenses for sex crimes or other sexual misconduct over a six-year period.

The AP's finding is undoubtedly an undercount, since not every state has a process for banning problem officers from re-entering law enforcement, and states that do vary greatly in how they report and prosecute wrongdoers.

One factor stands out, however — victims tend to be among society's most vulnerable: juveniles, drug addicts, and women in custody or with a criminal history. And that's exactly who authorities accused Holtzclaw of targeting.

Questions of race surrounded the trial. Holtzclaw is half-white, half-Japanese. All his accusers are black. The case was heard by an all-white jury. Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said he had sought a "good cross-section of our community," but defense attorneys had eliminated every potential black juror.

Prater said he hopes people will see that his office and local law enforcement will stand up for any one, no matter their race or background.

Activists outside the courthouse on Friday said that remains to be seen, urging Prater to recommend consecutive sentences that might put Holtzclaw behind bars for life. If the 30-year terms run concurrently, they worried, he might get out in seven years.

The youngest of his victims, a 17-year-old girl, was the last to testify. She said Holtzclaw picked her up as she walked home one night in June 2014, and then walked her to the porch, where he told her he had to search her. She said he grabbed her breasts, then pulled down her pink shorts and raped her. Her DNA was found on his uniform trousers.

The jury convicted Holtzclaw of first-degree rape, second-degree rape and sexual battery in the girl's case.

Her mother clapped her hands and screamed with joy at the verdict, while Holtzclaw hung his head and sobbed.

The AP does not identify victims of sex crimes without their consent and is not using the mother's name, to avoid identifying her daughter.

Defense attorney Scott Adams, who declined to comment, invoked criminal backgrounds in an effort to cast doubt on some victims' testimony. He questioned several women at length about whether they were high at the time, and noted that most didn't come forward until investigators identified them as possible victims.

Ultimately, the strategy failed.

One woman even testified in orange scrubs and handcuffs, because she had been jailed on drug charges hours before appearing in court, but the jury still convicted Holtzclaw of forcible oral sodomy in her case. That woman said he followed her into her bedroom and raped her, telling her, "This is better than county jail."

Holtzclaw, a college football star who joined law enforcement after a brief attempt at pursuing an NFL career, rocked back and forth, sobbing in his chair, as the verdicts were read.

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The AP's "Betrayed by the Badge" series:

AP: Hundreds of officers lose licenses over sex misconduct: http://apne.ws/1J0bVlI

AP: Officer sex cases plagued by lax supervision, policies: http://apne.ws/1SSnNf4

AP: Broken system lets problem officers jump from job to job: http://apne.ws/1QARkuu

AP investigation into officer sex misconduct, by the numbers: http://apne.ws/1J0c6gU

A look inside AP's investigation on officer sex misconduct: http://apne.ws/1lB6J2L

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Merchant reported from Dallas. Associated Press National Writer Matt Sedensky in West Palm Beach, Florida, and AP reporter Tim Talley in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.