TRIGGER WARNING: The following editorial includes discussion and details of rape and sexual assault.
For one man, Baltimore has proven to be the city that continues to find him not guilty. Nelson Bernard Clifford has been acquitted a fourth time on rape allegations, according The Baltimore Sun on Sunday. Prosecutors in the Baltimore City Circuit Court believe they have had such a difficult time indicting Clifford because of a decision made in a 1977 court case, McKnight v. State.
As a result of the case, Maryland prosecutors cannot lump together multiple charges into one trial or use pieces of evidence from a previous trial in the next, and defendants can face several trials to work through multiple allegations. That means that even if someone has committed a similar crime four times, they are a suspect in four separate trials with four separate juries.
The biggest problem with the Clifford case is he was charged with committing multiple rapes the same way. He entered the survivors’ homes late at night, left bodily fluid on their sheets and claimed he was given consent. Clifford’s lawyers figured out how to beat the first case, and this formula seems to have worked in later cases.
The juries have all been faced with the same evidence, but because prosecutors cannot mention the other assaults and risk a mistrial, juries remain oblivious to the multiple allegations. Prosecutors cannot say anything about how four separate women have crumbled on the witness stand because they had to face their assailant.
The Baltimore Sun also reports Clifford was extremely charismatic on the stand. He even made jurors laugh. He appeared more credible than the plaintiffs because he was so much more confident. Why build a strong defense when the defendant is such a good public speaker and advocate for his character?
This is the problem with these cases. Clifford doesn’t “seem” like he could be a rapist. He is too witty, smart and gives off an air of having his life — and subconsciously his actions — in order and in control. He is someone who can convince a jury that he is simply living the escapades of a young single man. People seem to have a preconceived image of who is likely to commit sexual assault, such as a crazed individual with a long beard waiting in the shadows of dark alleyways, or someone who is a deranged psychopath and a social outcast.
One of the pervasive problems with rape culture is the perception of who is a rapist. If they don’t look or act like a monster, or if they’re not noticeably nervous on the stand, a jury could assume that the alleged attacker must be innocent even if the perpetrator were actually guilty. The gaping hole, especially in the Maryland legal system, is fueled by this mindset and refusal to admit there is a fundamental problem — and it starts with the public’s preconceptions of who rapists are and what kind of people are assaulted. If we recognize that sexual assault does not come only from monsters unable to empathize, and that many cases involve those who appear to fit into society, we will take a large step toward justice.