Former Minneapolis officer David Clifford was sentenced for an off-duty incident at an Andover restaurant that severely injured another patron.
Former Minneapolis Police Sgt. David Clifford rose slowly from his chair. Facing the judge who would sentence him Thursday for an off-duty punch that severely injured another patron at an Andover restaurant, he choked up and said, “I was wrong.”
He apologized to the victim, Brian Vander Lee, who stared at the floor as Clifford continued with his statement. He had let his family down and brought dishonor to his department, Clifford said. Whatever sentence the judge handed out, he would accept it and serve honorably.
Every day, Judge Lawrence Johnson told the packed Anoka County courtroom, people make mistakes. He believed that Clifford was remorseful, but that an officer’s career places a premium on being calm and keeping emotions in check.
In the gallery, people leaned forward in their chairs as Johnson sentenced Clifford to three years and seven months in prison, half the recommended time for a first-degree assault conviction under state sentencing guidelines.
Clifford then turned to allow the sheriff’s deputy to put handcuffs on him and take him away to jail.
The courtroom remained largely quiet. Vander Lee and his family were whisked out. Several of Clifford’s colleagues were teary and shook their heads when the sentence was announced.
Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo said the case was difficult for his office to prosecute because his staff often works with law enforcement. He said that it was unfortunate that a police officer acted in a fit of anger and said that it was not a day for gloating.
Clifford, 48, will have to serve two-thirds of his sentence, or about two years and four months, and would be on supervised release for the remaining time.
Clifford had contended during his trial in April that he was acting in self-defense when he hit Vander Lee, 44, at Tanners Station in Andover on June 16, 2012. The incident was captured on a dark and sometimes grainy surveillance video.
Clifford testified that he approached Vander Lee, who was sitting at the next table, and told him to curb his loud and abusive language.
Clifford and his attorney, Fred Bruno, claimed Vander Lee, who was drunk, stood up, cocked his left arm and tried to throw a punch. Clifford punched Vander Lee, who fell backward and cracked his head against the outdoor patio floor. He had two immediate brain surgeries and a third within weeks of the incident.
Thursday’s proceedings started with a victim impact statement from Vander Lee’s wife, Kourtney. She cried as she described the weeks she spent by her husband’s hospital bed as he lay in a coma. She wouldn’t allow her four daughters to visit because “the person in that bed was unrecognizable.”
“David Clifford was supposed to be a man of integrity,” she said. “He almost killed a man.”
Brian Vander Lee, overcome with emotion, asked prosecutor C. Blair Buccicone to read his statement. In it, Vander Lee said he no longer laughs as much with his daughters and is always on edge. He said he doesn’t like to go out in public anymore and is struggling in his sales job at the Star Tribune. He has constant headaches, blurred vision and hearing problems. He’s growing his hair long to cover the scars from his operations.
“I go out and people ask if I’m that guy,” he said. “I didn’t do anything wrong that day.”