Rape acquittals spur calls for law change

A string of acquittals for a man accused of raping several Baltimore women has renewed a debate over whether the law should be changed to help prosecutors secure sex offense convictions.

Nelson Bernard Clifford, 35, has been cleared in four trials in Baltimore City Circuit Court since 2011. Each time his accusers have testified, but Clifford has said in court that all his encounters were consensual.


Prosecutors have attempted in various ways to show juries a pattern, but have been stymied by city judges, who have rejected attempts by prosecutors to join separate cases together, or to call witnesses to testify about assaults other than the one being tried.

State law protects defendants from having to face evidence about their character or any previous crimes in which they were implicated.


Congress changed the federal rules for rape cases two decades ago in an attempt to make it easier to secure convictions. Several states have followed suit. Maryland is not among them.

Marilyn Mosby, who plans to challenge Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein in next year's Democratic primary, has raised the Clifford cases as an issue. She said Tuesday morning that there is a "glaring need" for the General Assembly to change the rules.

"Once a jury is blocked from hearing about somebody like Clifford's past convictions, people like him are free to claim that the sexual assault was consensual, which significantly diminishes the prosecutorial impact of DNA evidence," Mosby said.

A spokesman for the state's attorney said Bernstein would support a change in the law.

Spokesman Mark Cheshire pointed out that in the most recent case against Clifford, prosecutors sought to tell jurors about other allegations against him.

Prosecutors attempted to discuss eight other incidents in which they say Clifford broke into a home and sexually assaulted a woman, according to court filings. They wrote that the evidence would show Clifford had a plan that he executed repeatedly.

"Under the existing evidentiary rules other criminal evidence is admissible in certain circumstances," Cheshire said. "We believe other crime evidence was admissible in the Clifford case but we were ultimately denied."

Clifford's attorney could not be reached for comment.


Russell A. Neverdon Sr., a private defense attorney who also has said he plans to run against Bernstein, said the existing rules, which allow other allegations to be raised under limited circumstances, are sufficient.

"As a prosecutor you have an arsenal that's already there," Neverdon said. "You've just got to make sure it's a solid argument."

But Lisae C. Jordan, the executive director of Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said Maryland's judges err on the side of protecting defendants. She said they do not give rape victims a fair chance at winning justice in the courts.

"It's all a question of balance, and unfortunately, right now we don't have balance at all," Jordan said. "We completely favor the defendant."

Congress rewrote the federal rules on evidence in rape cases in 1994, over the objections of judges and defense attorneys.

The General Assembly has considered several bills that would make it easier to introduce evidence of other attacks in sexual abuse cases, but only those in which the victim was a child. None have passed.


State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, the vice chairwoman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said that the legislature should not make changes to the rules on the basis of a single "bad case."

The Baltimore Democrat, who is a defense attorney, warned that such changes could spill over into other types of offenses and undermine defendants' rights.

"I don't like messing around with the rules of evidence," Gladden said. "If you can't get a conviction, fix your case."