Nelson Bernard Clifford, the repeat sex offender who won acquittals in four separate cases after he took the stand and said the alleged attacks were consensual, was sentenced to more than 30 years in prison Thursday by a judge who said he had exposed "cracks in the system."
Clifford, 37, was convicted this month of third-degree sex offense and theft in a 2007 attack on a woman. He attacked her shortly after serving nearly 10 years for an earlier sexual assault.
At his sentencing Thursday, he apologized tearfully, cast blame on the state, and begged Chief Judge Alfred Nance for help.
He said he had a long-standing problem that he realized at a young age but never received sufficient treatment, even while serving nearly 10 years for a sex offense.
"I believe the state of Maryland failed me," Clifford said, reading from a prepared statement. "I didn't have to turn out this way."
Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer McAllister told Nance that Clifford "preys upon women where they are most vulnerable and should be most safe, in their homes and in their beds."
"Any remorse he feels is remorse that he's been found guilty," she said.
Clifford's remarks were a far cry from previous court appearances, in which he coolly took the witness stand and said his alleged victims had made up their stories — in some cases labeling them prostitutes or saying they had cheated on their boyfriends with him.
"Mr. Clifford is persuasive," Nance said. "Mr. Clifford is also manipulative."
Two of Clifford's previous alleged victims sat behind him in the courtroom. Shatia Lansdowne, 32, called Clifford's remarks "disgusting."
"I'm glad that it's over," she said. "I feel vindicated. This is not my case, but it is my situation. I'm just happy he got the time he deserved."
The Baltimore Sun does not ordinarily name victims of sexual assault. Lansdowne said she wanted to be named.
Clifford was acquitted of rape in four separate trials since 2011. His attorney, Gregory Fischer, had argued successfully that each case should be heard separately, so juries wouldn't be swayed by the cumulative effective of multiple allegations.
Nance said Clifford's cases had exposed cracks in the system.
"The system has supported him," he said.
State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby made a priority of convicting Clifford. She also has fought unsuccessfully for legislation that would help prosecutors try such cases together.
"We see why it's so important," she said Thursday. "Without it, there are more victims."
"Justice was served today," Mosby told reporters outside the courthouse.
In 2013, after Clifford's most recent acquittal, then-State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein's office refiled two cases against Clifford that had been charged and dropped in 2007 because prosecutors thought at the time that the evidence was weak.
Detective Jessica Armstrong said a fresh look gave investigators confidence.
"We discovered that these cases were actually connected," Armstrong said. "Realizing that the victims were still very much on board, we decided to move forward."
Prosecutors seemed headed down a familiar path when Nance ruled earlier this year that the two revived cases had to be tried separately. At the time, the decision elicited a grin from Clifford.
In one of the cases, a jury acquitted Clifford this month of first- and second-degree sex offense and other charges, but convicted him on two counts of third-degree sex offense and one count of theft.
Those convictions, along with a 1997 conviction for second-degree sex offense, allowed prosecutors to seek an enhanced penalty of up to life in prison. Nance gave him 30 years for the two sex-offense cases and 18 months for theft.
Several of Clifford's relatives appeared in court, and though they spoke to Nance on his behalf, they also acknowledged his problems.
"I don't justify nothing that's happened or stand behind nothing," said Earl Johnson, an uncle. "I apologize to the city of Baltimore on his behalf."
Clifford's attorney and relatives told Nance that Clifford was raised by drug-addicted parents who fought and used drugs in front of him and his sister. They said prostitutes frequented the home.
"His living conditions were not the best to raise a child," said Florestine Clifford, an aunt. "He strayed at an early age. I'm sorry I didn't recognize at the time that he had problems. Maybe he could've gotten some more help."
When it was Clifford's turn to speak, he began by absolving his parents. Both died while he was in prison on the earlier conviction.
"Whatever I did, I did on my own," he said. "It had nothing to do with my mother and father."
After his first conviction, Fischer said, Clifford earned a GED in prison and took community college courses. While there are many treatment programs in prison, Clifford said there is no help for sex offenders.
"There is no group in prison for my kind of problem," Clifford told Nance. "Whatever you come into the Division of Correction with, you still have it when you come out."
Gerard Shields, a spokesman for the state prison system, said sex offenders are treated through individual psychological therapy, and there is a sex offender group therapy component for inmates at the Patuxent Institution. He said the system would study and consider adding programs.
Fischer said Clifford's status as a sex offender made him a "pariah" when he returned home. Despite having earned an education, the attorney said, Clifford couldn't get jobs or apartments, and friendships fell apart.
Prosecutors said Clifford committed a series of crimes after his release from prison in 2007. They alleged he broke into his victims' homes through an open window, tied them up and forced them to perform sex acts.
Only DNA connected Clifford to the masked man who terrorized them.
On Thursday, Clifford said he did "everything in my power to suppress my problems." While on probation, he said, he traveled 10 miles by bus to attend sex offender treatment in Dundalk.
Clifford said he has researched treatment options and wants help. Even if locked up for decades, he said, "I still have to live with myself."
"Please don't throw my life away," he said.
The victim in the case for which Clifford was sentenced did not appear in court on Thursday — now a schoolteacher, she was accompanying her students on a field trip. But her sister read a statement in which she forgave him and said she hoped he could reform.