David Clifford said it was a matter of self-defense — that he had to punch Brian Vander Lee before Vander Lee hit him.
A jury is expected to decide the matter as early as Friday.
Clifford, 48, a Minneapolis police SWAT team leader, testified at his assault trial Thursday that “my training kicked in” when he reacted to an off-duty confrontation by punching fellow patron Vander Lee at an Andover bar and restaurant last June.
Vander Lee fell backward and his head hit the outdoor patio floor, ultimately resulting in three brain surgeries. Clifford, charged with first-degree assault, told the Anoka County jury that he saw Vander Lee’s left arm come up in a cocked position.
“I knew I was going to be hit, and I knew I had to hit him before,” Clifford said. He referred to his punch as “a clearing strike.”
Clifford testified that he, his wife and another couple were sitting at Tanners Station on June 16 when he approached the next table and asked Vander Lee, 44, to tone down his loud use of obscenities and other offensive language.
As a jury watched a surveillance video and still photos of the incident, Clifford pointed at Vander Lee’s left arm, which he said moved from an extended to cocked position. What the jury saw in the dark and shadowy photos could determine Clifford’s fate.
Clifford and his attorney, Fred Bruno, say Vander Lee attempted to throw the first punch. Prosecutors say Clifford’s punch was unprovoked and noted that Clifford is a highly trained police officer with 19 years’ experience on the Minneapolis force.
After Clifford’s punch, he left the premises immediately. He testified he did so for his wife’s safety, the safety of his companions and the safety of everyone else on the patio.
“If I stuck around there’d be a big fight on the patio,” he testified.
He said he considered calling 911 but did not. He did not return to the scene or immediately turn himself in. When Anoka County sheriff’s deputies came to his Andover home after midnight, he was home but didn’t answer the door. Clifford said he wanted to first consult with the police union and get legal counsel.
“I knew there was going to be big trouble all around,” he testified.
When Clifford did offer a statement to an Anoka County deputy, he said nothing about Vander Lee’s left hand being raised, prosecutor Robert Goodell told the jury.
Clifford is expected to take the stand again Friday, followed by closing arguments. Judge Lawrence Johnson told the jurors that their deliberations could go into the night.