This post includes descriptions of sexual assault that may be triggering for some readers.
On November 10, 2011, the sick acts of a violent repeat sexual offender named Nelson Bernard Clifford changed my life forever. He broke into my home as I lay asleep. He tied me up. And he raped me without a condom as my two daughters slept in their bedroom, separated by one thin plastered wall.
I remember offering him money and valuables, only for him to tell me he only wanted sex. I falsely told him that my daughter needed medication every two hours to get him to leave.
When he finally left, I immediately dressed my two daughters — one in the pants he used to tie me — and covered my three-year-old daughter’s mouth, not knowing whether he was waiting in the hallway. We crawled up the stairs to a neighbor’s apartment, and called the police.
On that tragic morning, my entire family began our unimaginable six-year fight for justice.
I can recall the trial as if it were yesterday. I fought back tears as I took the stand to testify against this monster, detailing every aspect of my brutal attack — things I am ashamed to repeat to this very day. Yet it soon felt as if I was the one on trial. Under oath, I was forced to recount every detail of that horrific night in front of my four brothers, my father, and my husband.
Prosecutors played my 911 tape at trial. The sight of my brothers’ inconsolable cries after hearing their nieces scream hysterically in the background was gut-wrenching.
Then, as I thought this nightmare couldn’t get any worse, and despite DNA evidence, Clifford took the stand and falsely testified that my vicious attack was a consensual sexual encounter. He had the audacity to tell the jury that I was a prostitute who didn’t want my husband to find out. He was acquitted.
I thought, “How could this happen?” I knew for sure it was an open and shut case.
Still without justice, my emotions were a whirlwind of rage, confusion, violation; and yes, grave disappointment in our justice system. Honestly, had I known the outcome, I would never have taken my family through that emotional roller coaster.
However, I managed to find the strength to continue my pursuit of justice. As I agonized over the night of my attack and recalled the threats of my attacker — he said he would kill my children if I screamed or called the police — I thought about each of my loved ones who had also become victims of my rape: my husband, my children, my parents, and my siblings. And I vowed to do anything within my power to stop Nelson Clifford from terrorizing other women.
I attended every single one of Clifford’s subsequent rape trials. As I listened to each woman, I became each one of them. I was disgusted to hear how similar their attacks were to mine. And, just as in my trial, all of their vulnerabilities were put on display in open court, as our attacker falsely testified that it was consensual sex.
While observing each of these trials, I realized that regardless of how many times this same man was put on trial for these shockingly similar attacks, the juries were completely unaware that he was in fact a serial rapist. The 12 men and women of each jury were not informed of his prior allegations, charges, trials, or that Clifford was a registered sex offender who had already served nearly 10 years in prison for a 1997 conviction after admitting to sexually assaulting a woman.
Clifford was tried and acquitted for four separate rape cases involving four different women over the course of four years.
Every time I heard “not guilty” I felt as if I was being raped again. Four more blows to each part of my body Clifford ravished for his sexual exploits. Each acquittal made it more of a reality that this monster could someday return to the streets of Baltimore City and continue to terrorize women.
I couldn’t understand how a system designed to deliver justice could be so unjust. But, I finally understood why so many rapes go unreported. Here you have a serial rapist getting off scot-free, while those he terrorized are put on trial, receive no justice and are labeled “tramps.”
Around 2013, as political campaigns were in full swing, I noticed a woman by the name of Marilyn Mosby, who was bringing attention to the then-State’s Attorney’s inability to convict Clifford based on a loophole in Maryland legislation.
I learned that in Maryland, serial rapists know that often their prior sexual predatory behavior and status as a sex offender cannot be introduced as evidence during trial. So, even with DNA evidence and the survivor’s testimony, sexual offenders know they can falsely testify that they engaged in consensual sex, raising doubt in the minds of the jury.
In 2015, justice prevailed and my attacker was finally convicted and sentenced to 31 and a half years in prison. He had allegedly attacked nine women. Although I was relieved that this sick individual was off the streets, drug dealers receive harsher sentences. Why do I have to ever worry about someday running into a man who climbed into my window, viciously attacked me, threatened me and my children’s lives, and left me to live with this harsh reality for the rest of my life?
I knew I had to get involved in an effort to put an end to the loophole that had allowed for the inequitable outcomes in my attacker’s cases.
Alongside other survivors, advocates and State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, I lobbied for legislation that would allow for evidence of prior sexual predatory behavior to be introduced during the prosecution of serial rapists and child molesters when a defendant uses consent as a defense to rape, or accuses a minor of lying about allegations of sexual molestation.
Last year, I gained the courage to testify before the House of Delegates and Senate committees in support of the Serial Predator Prevention Act. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate, but died in the House.
It’s hard enough to cope with the fact of being raped, but it’s even harder to step up and ask for help; yet, not receive it. How many times must I put a Band-Aid on this horrific incident, then have to rip it off? I am trying to heal from my vicious attack, but each time this bill doesn’t pass, just like each acquittal, I have to go back and rip it off again. Yet here I am for another year, ready to share my story and put my family on the front line once again in hopes that it will motivate some of our legislators to do the right thing.
This year, Maryland House Bill 369 and Senate Bill 316 must pass.
Even after its passage, I will still have to deal with the mental anguish of my tragic attack. I will continue to live in fear, wonder if my attacker touched my children that night, wonder if I was infected with HIV despite being tested regularly, struggle with intimacy in my marriage, and shelter my children.
After six years, he still controls my life. This man has literally attached himself to my life forever — when you google my name, his name pops up. Each day, I ask, “Why me?”
This is why I feel compelled to fight for this law because if I do not I am contributing to the brutal attack of another woman or child. I am certain that this legislation will prevent another family from having to endure this turmoil, as it will help secure convictions and lengthy sentences for serial rapists.
I encourage you all to join me in the fight to stop serial predators.
Shatia Lansdowne-Ware, Survivor and Fighter
For more information about SB316 and HB369 and how you can get involved, contact Lisa Smith in the Office of the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City at firstname.lastname@example.org or 443-984-6005.