Minneapolis SWAT team leader Sgt. David Clifford was found guilty Saturday of assaulting a fellow patron in an Andover bar.
The Anoka County jury reviewed evidence for several hours before reaching the verdict Saturday morning. Closing arguments in the felony first-degree assault case concluded Friday afternoon.
Clifford was convicted on three counts: first-, third- and fifth-degree assault.
“It’s just a very sobering moment when a police officer is convicted of a crime, but we felt we had to pursue justice,” Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo said minutes after the verdict.
Sentencing is set for May 29 before Judge Lawrence Johnson, with a seven-year sentence recommended under Minnesota sentencing guidelines, Palumbo said. Two-thirds of that would be served in prison, with the rest on supervised release.
Clifford, 48, contended that he was acting in self-defense when he punched Brian Vander Lee, 44, at Tanners Station in Andover on June 16.
The incident was captured on a dark and sometimes grainy surveillance video. Clifford testified in Anoka County District Court that he approached Vander Lee, who was sitting at the next table, and told him to curb his loud and abusive language. He and his attorney, Fred Bruno, claimed throughout the two-week trial that Vander Lee, who was very drunk, then stood up, cocked his left arm and attempted to throw a punch. Clifford, who was off-duty, reacted with a right and Vander Lee 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.
“The camera doesn’t lie,” Bruno told jurors during closing arguments, referring to the surveillance video and blown-up still photos that the jury saw repeatedly throughout the trial.
But prosecutors noted that Clifford never said a thing about Vander Lee throwing a left at him when he initially turned himself in to the county sheriff, on June 17, nearly 19 hours after the incident at Tanners. It was only after Clifford had conferred with Bruno and watched the video with his lawyer that he spoke of a Vander Lee punch, said prosecutor Blair Buccicone.
“Brian Vander Lee is not a threat,” Buccicone said to a packed courtroom.
Buccicone replayed the video and pointed out that not a single Tanners Station patron seemed disturbed by the loud and off-color language being used by brothers Brian and Mike Vander Lee.
“Here’s the thing,” Buccicone told the jury. “There was bad language being used. But that does not merit a punch to the face.”
Both sides noted that Clifford is a highly trained officer in sound physical condition. Bruno said Clifford reacted instinctively when he saw Vander Lee cock his left arm. Vander Lee’s blood-alcohol level was 0.189 percent, more than twice the legal limit for driving.
“You put Brian Vander Lee sober in a ring against David Clifford, that is not even a fair fight,” Buccicone told the jury. But drunk? “That’s a blowout,” he said.
Vander Lee, who testified earlier this week, said he could not remember much of the incident. Buccicone said that Vander Lee has experienced headaches and that his hearing, eyesight, and senses of smell and taste “will never be the same.”
Prosecutors also highlighted Clifford’s actions following the punch. He fled the scene and later called members of the Minneapolis Police Federation, seeking legal counsel. He never called 911 and didn’t answer his door when sheriff’s deputies came to his house after midnight. Clifford testified he left the scene to protect others, avoiding a melee.
Buccicone asked why Clifford didn’t just walk away in the first place, instead of throwing a punch.
“He’s not trained to do that,” the prosecutor said. “He’s trained to win.”
Staff writer Joy Powell contributed to this report.