The star witness in the assault trial of an off-duty Minneapolis police sergeant will be a videotape.
Both prosecution and defense attorneys stressed Thursday the importance of the video, which shows a punch thrown by David Clifford at an Andover restaurant that sent Brian Vander Lee to the hospital with a serious brain injury last June. Clifford, a decorated SWAT team officer, was charged with first-degree assault.
In opening arguments in an Anoka courtroom, assistant Anoka County Attorney Robert Goddell said “guilty people run and hide.” Clifford, who was off-duty at the time of the incident, punched Vander Lee in the head, fled and then hid out while Vander Lee struggled for his life, said Goddell.
The prosecutor described what happened at Tanners Station while Vander Lee, family members and a friend gathered for drinks. Goddell didn’t deny that Vander Lee was drunk, his blood alcohol level at .189.
Clifford and his party, including his wife, allege that Vander Lee was talking loudly on a cellphone and using extremely distasteful language. Clifford repeatedly asked Vander Lee to tone it down, according to defense attorney Fred Bruno.
Goddell said the video will show that Clifford punched Vander Lee once in the face, unprovoked. Bruno said it will show that Vander Lee stood up at his table when Clifford approached, swung his right hand at Clifford and missed. Clifford, defending himself, punched Vander Lee in the head, Bruno said.
After the punch, Clifford ran to a nearby funeral home parking lot. There he was confronted by Vander Lee’s brother and his friend. Bruno said Clifford suffered two broken ribs and a concussion.
Goddell noted that it took Clifford 19 hours to turn himself in to the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office. Bruno countered that Clifford needed time to reach various supervisors, union reps, an attorney and the internal affairs unit before he was advised to turn himself in.
The reason Clifford fled the scene, Bruno said, panned out in the funeral home parking lot — he feared Vander Lee’s brother and friend would hurt him.
Judge Lawrence Johnson said the trial will last six to eight days. It took nearly four days to pick a jury.
Outside the courtroom Thursday, Clifford’s wife, Kellie, said her husband was on paid administrative leave from the Minneapolis Police Department. Minneapolis Police Sgt. Stephen McCarty said the city attorney told him Clifford’s job status wasn’t public information.
“My husband had no intent to hurt anybody,” Kellie Clifford said. “He had just gotten off of work. He hardly had anything to drink. Anybody who knows him doesn’t believe this.”
On Friday, the jury will see the videotape. It will also hear from people who were at Tanners Station on the day of the incident.