Jurors in Anoka County on Saturday convicted a Minneapolis police SWAT team leader of delivering a knockout punch that nearly killed another bar patron in Andover.
Sgt. David R. Clifford, 48, will be sentenced May 29 for the assault on Brian Vander Lee, who fell and hit his head on the concrete patio floor at Tanners Station. The 44-year-old father of four was on life support for 40 days and underwent three brain surgeries after Clifford punched him last June. Problems with memory, hearing and headaches linger, said a close friend, Mike Archambeault.
Clifford faces a term of seven years under state sentencing guidelines. Two-thirds of that would be served in prison, the rest on supervised release. He was convicted of first- and third-degree assault, both felonies, and fifth-degree misdemeanor assault. Convicted felons are not eligible to hold a Minnesota peace officer license.
“Everyone assumes we’re going to give him a break because he’s a police officer,“ prosecutor Blair Buccicone said. “We treat everyone the same. David Clifford is no different from anybody else.”
“I’m happier than heck,” said Archambeault, who recalled seeing Clifford sprinting from the Andover restaurant patio after hitting Vander Lee. “I’m ecstatic, actually. Justice has been served. We’re all responsible for our actions.”
Clifford’s attorney, Fred Bruno, contended that Vander Lee tried to throw the first punch. But the jury apparently never saw that alleged punch in the dark, grainy restaurant video that shows Clifford telling an intoxicated Vander Lee to stop using loud and profane language.
After the blow, Buccicone said, Vander Lee lay on the ground, fighting for his life. “As a police officer, you don’t leave someone in that condition. But Clifford left the scene,” the prosecutor said.
“It’s just a very sobering moment when a police officer is convicted of a crime, but we felt we had to pursue justice,” County Attorney Tony Palumbo said.
Calls to Bruno and Clifford’s wife, Kellie Clifford, were not returned Saturday.
“This is truly a tragic situation for everyone involved,“ Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau said Saturday. “The actions of David Clifford, although off-duty at the time of the altercation, are not consistent with our department core values and high standards.”