City prosecutors lose three trials with accused rapist on stand

Nelson Bernard Clifford has been tried in three separate rape cases in recent years. Each time, he was linked through DNA to the scene and his accuser said she had been bound, blindfolded and attacked.

And each time, the 35-year-old was acquitted after giving similar testimony: He said the sex was consensual and surmised the women accused him of rape because they were either upset over a financial dispute or worried their boyfriends would find out.

With a fourth case, an attempted rape, headed to trial next month, Clifford and his acquittals have become political fodder for State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein's opponents who have criticized his effectiveness.

The case also highlights the difficulty of prosecuting sex crimes, particularly in cases where a defendant faces separate trials on similar charges. While defense attorneys say multiple trials ensure juries aren't unfairly swayed by unrelated allegations, prosecutors contend that cases should be heard together if they show a common "modus operandi."

Last month, prosecutors dropped three rape charges against another defendant after failing to convince a judge to try the cases jointly.

Marilyn Mosby, a candidate for state's attorney, called the acquittals of Clifford, a convicted sex offender from a previous case, "totally unacceptable." Bernstein this week acknowledged prosecutors were concerned with the verdicts, calling Clifford a "dangerous individual" and saying he still hopes to convict him.

"Mr. Clifford has testified that the sexual contact was consensual, and the jury accepted his version of what occurred," Bernstein told radio host Marc Steiner this week. "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."

Clifford's defense attorney, Gregory Fischer said in court that the accusers gave inconsistent accounts. Clifford, who remains in jail, provided detailed accounts on the stand of meeting the women, getting in touch by phone, going to their houses and having consensual sex. Fischer could not be reached for comment.

The jury foreman in one of the cases said prosecutors simply didn't have enough evidence to overcome their doubts about the testimony of a visibly shaken victim.

"We don't really know her that well; [whether] she's nervous in court because of another reason, besides rape," said the foreman, a 28-year-old who did not want to be identified. "We don't know."

Mosby, who plans to challenge Bernstein in next year's election, said in an e-mail blast to supporters that the blame rests with Bernstein. He "lost three times in jury trials," she said, adding that "rapists, murderers, stick-up kids — none of them are scared of Baltimore prosecutors."

Russell A. Neverdon Sr., a defense attorney who also plans to challenge Bernstein, questioned the wisdom of the prosecution strategy in Clifford's case.

He said prosecutors should thoroughly investigate each allegation separately. Seeking to join cases suggests "that you don't believe in your case," and can be a high-risk strategy because a problem with one of the cases could sink the entire prosecution.

"It can blow up in your face," Neverdon said.

Clifford has been a registered sex offender since 1997, when he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a second-degree sex offense.

Charged with rape in 2011, Clifford was convicted only of theft and released 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."

Two months after the verdict, he would be charged in two rapes and an attempted rape.

At his trials on the two rape charges last month, Clifford, dressed in dark slacks and short-sleeved dress shirts, took the stand and was poised and straightforward during his testimony. He described himself as a college-educated hair stylist "specializing in dreadlock maintenance" at a Greenmount Avenue salon.

And he detailed his encounters with the women as typical, even clumsy, sexual escapades of a single man. At some points, jurors giggled as he went point-by-point describing his version of courtship and intercourse.