Witness credibility a focus in ex-officer's sex abuse trial
NOMAAN MERCHANT & TIM TALLEY
Dec. 02, 2015
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The woman wore orange jail scrubs, handcuffs and leg irons as she testified about the police officer who she said raped her. Hours earlier, she had been jailed on drug charges after relapsing on crack cocaine.
She was the second witness in a row to appear wearing inmate garb, and neither the first nor the last with a history of drug problems.
They were among 13 women who testified in the sexual assault trial of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, many providing visual cues to the challenges prosecutors faced as they concluded their case this week.
Holtzclaw, 28, is accused of abusing his role to prey on vulnerable women while on duty. He faces 36 counts of rape, forcible oral sodomy, sexual battery and other charges that carry a possible sentence of life in prison. His attorney, Scott Adams, told jurors Holtzclaw was an honorable but naive officer trying to help troubled women who lied about him, and made their credibility the cornerstone of his defense strategy.
Adams called just one witness, an ex-girlfriend of the officer, before resting his case Wednesday. Closing arguments are set for Monday.
Since the trial began Nov. 2, many of the women's descriptions had traced a similar arc: The officer stopped them while out on patrol, ran background checks for outstanding warrants or conducted searches that turned up drug paraphernalia, then forced them to have sex to avoid arrest.
Most testified that they never reported the assaults to authorities for fear no one would believe them.
"What's the good of telling the police? What kind of police do you call on the police?" asked one woman, who sobbed as she testified Tuesday that Holtzclaw pulled down her shorts and raped her on her mother's front porch when she was 17. The Associated Press does not name victims of sexual assault without their consent.
The vulnerability of victims was a common thread in a recent Associated Press investigation that found about 1,000 officers nationwide had lost their badges in a six-year period for sexual assault and sex-related misconduct. Hundreds were convicted, but many others were never prosecuted.
Throughout the trial, Adams challenged the accusers' credibility, enumerating their arrest records, searching for inconsistencies in their stories and questioning why most didn't come forward until police investigators approached them. He also noted that some had filed civil lawsuits against the city.
"You could have called anybody at 911 and said, 'Not only was I raped by an Oklahoma City police officer, but I have DNA evidence all over the place in my room,' " Adams challenged one witness, after reading into the court record her criminal history.
He focused especially on the women's use of drugs. Under Adams' questioning, one woman acknowledged she had slipped out of the motel room prosecutors had arranged for her the night before and procured marijuana and the hallucinogen PCP. She slurred some words, but denied being high on the witness stand and stood by her accusations.
Several of the women pushed back. "I'm really getting upset by the way you're coming after me," said the youngest accuser, who is now 18.
Prosecutors did not try to hide the witnesses' backgrounds, asking each about hers before Adams' cross-examination. They turned to relatives and friends who recalled the women telling them about the alleged attacks. They also called police investigators and forensic experts to corroborate the women's claims.
After the first accuser came forward, police examined searches Holtzclaw made in police databases and data from his vehicle's locator device.
Detective Kim Davis, who led the investigation, testified GPS records showed, for example, that Holtzclaw was parked outside one woman's home for an unusually long time for someone he was supposedly dropping off. Davis described meeting with the woman four months later, and when Davis asked if the woman knew why they were meeting, "She said, 'How do you know? Did he confess?' "
Adams employed a strategy used by other lawyers who have successfully defended officers accused of rape.
In 2012, an Oklahoma jury took just 40 minutes to acquit Stephens County sheriff's deputy Brandon Balthrop of assaulting two women and a teenager during traffic stops. Balthrop's attorney, Jim Kee, said he highlighted problems with each accuser's allegations, from inconsistencies in testimony to one's criminal record and drug abuse. He said Adams appeared to use the same approach.
Balthrop later surrendered his law enforcement license and had his case file expunged. The county settled federal lawsuits by paying the women $215,000.
In October, a Florida jury acquitted Stephen Maiorino of raping a 20-year-old woman, despite statements by the judge that evidence of rape was "overwhelming." The former officer's lawyers argued the sex was consensual; the accuser was led crying from the courtroom after the verdict. The city later agreed to an $875,000 settlement with the woman.
"There's a lot of deference and respect given to law enforcement," said Florida state's attorney Dave Aronberg, whose office prosecuted the former Boynton Beach officer. "There's just this assumption that you want to believe him."
Holtzclaw's case has attracted attention from clergy and activists, who've been especially critical of the makeup of the eight-man, four-woman jury, which appears to be all white. Oklahoma court officials could not provide jurors' race. Valeria Benabdallah, an Oklahoma City psychotherapist who attended part of the trial, said she was uncomfortable because jurors were being asked to judge a black female witness "pleading for her innocence."
More than 50 people marched outside one day, chanting, "We want life!" loudly enough to be heard inside the courtroom. "I can't order you to not hear it, but you understand that has nothing to do with what goes on in this courtroom," Judge Tim Henderson instructed jurors.
Holtzclaw's sister and his father, a police officer in Enid, have been a constant presence during the trial, and other family members and friends have attended. One former high school football teammate said he was convinced of Holtzclaw's innocence. "He's not that type of guy," Jarred Benton said.
AP National Writer Matt Sedensky contributed to this report.