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Prosecutors re-file sex assault charges dropped six years ago

Law EnforcementSexual AssaultAbusive BehaviorTheft

Baltimore prosecutors have resurrected charges dropped six years ago against a convicted sex offender, a rare move that comes as the man's latest trial is set to begin after a series of acquittals on recent accusations.

Nelson Bernard Clifford, who served prison time for a sex assault conviction in 1997, has faced three rape trials in recent years after authorities said he was linked to the crimes through DNA. Clifford has taken the stand in each case and testified that the encounters were consensual, and prosecutors have obtained convictions for lesser property crimes.

Clifford's fourth trial on charges of attempted first-degree rape, burglary and theft is set to begin Wednesday with opening statements. Those charges stem from an alleged assault in West Baltimore in December 2011.

Last week, authorities filed new charges against Clifford, accusing him of two sexual assaults reported days apart in September 2007. Clifford had been charged by police in connection with those crimes in November 2007, but prosecutors dropped all counts about a month later.

Officials could not explain why the charges were dropped at the time but said prosecutors and police re-evaluated the evidence and decided to file them again. Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office, said prosecutors can bring back charges without violating constitutional protections against double jeopardy if a jury has not been seated or a judge has not heard testimony.

Gregory Fischer, Clifford's defense attorney, declined comment after being instructed by Circuit Judge Alfred Nance not to speak to a reporter.

Documents filed in court this month say a 30-year-old woman told police that an unknown man broke into her apartment on Sept. 30, 2007 and bound her hands and legs with two belts. Police say he fondled her and committed a sexual act, asked for "money, guns or marijuana" and then fled through a window of the property in the 2400 block of N. Calvert St.

Investigators processed the crime scene and found a Motorola cell phone that did not belong to the victim, and they traced it back to a woman who had been sexually assaulted four days earlier in the 700 block of Reservoir St., according to court records.

That woman said a naked man wearing sneakers and a bandanna wrapped around his face climbed through her window, binding her hands with one of her scarves. Police say the man fondled her, then stole $15 and her phone.

According to the charging documents, Clifford was interviewed about the sex assaults on Oct. 31, 2007 and denied any involvement. Court records show charges were filed against him Nov. 1, 2007, then dropped on Dec. 11, 2007.

Police wrote in charging documents filed this month that they received a DNA match in 2008 from both crime scenes that linked Clifford to the attacks. One of those pieces of genetic evidence also included the profile of an unknown male.

Officials could not explain Tuesday why police and prosecutors did not re-file the charges at that time.

Clifford was charged with first-degree rape in 2010 and acquitted in 2011 of all charges except for a fourth-degree burglary after taking the stand and saying the sex was consensual.

"I'm a man. I'm not going to sit up here and lie to the jury or be somebody else," he testified at the time, describing why he wanted to get the woman's phone number. "My motive was to have sex with that young lady."

He was sentenced to one year and seven months' incarceration, but released due to the time he served while awaiting trial.

Two months after the verdict, he was charged in two rapes and an attempted rape, in Reservoir Hill and on Greenmount Avenue, in which the victims described being bound and attacked. In those attacks, police and prosecutors said Clifford was also linked through DNA.

Clifford took the stand in both of those trials and said he met the women and been invited over for sex. He was acquitted of all charges except theft, for taking $60 from nightstand of the Greenmount Avenue accuser.

State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein's political opponents in the next year's election criticized his office's handling of the recent cases. In a radio interview, Bernstein lamented the outcomes as well.

"All I can say is we have tried extremely hard to successfully prosecute him, and we're hopeful we'll be successful in the next case," Bernstein said.

Whatever the outcome of the case set to begin Wednesday, Clifford will remain locked up for the time being: He has been ordered held without bond on the re-filed 2007 charges.

jfenton@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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