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The Ottawa Citizen - What makes Vincent Clifford run

(2008-05-30)

Over the past 17 years, he has defended a vast cast of characters. Now a senior associate at one of the city's top firms, Vincent Clifford will talk politics, law, family, and sports -- just don't ask him about his biggest client.

Over the past 17 years, he has defended a vast cast of characters. Now a senior associate at one of the city's top firms, Vincent Clifford will talk politics, law, family, and sports -- just don't ask him about his biggest client.

Before we sit down over lunch, Mr. Clifford slides a piece of paper across the table. "Re: Mayor's Case: Not prepared to discuss any aspect of the case," it says.

While Mr. Clifford stresses he is simply one of four players on the dream team, he's the lawyer who made several appearances on Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien's behalf up until February, when his trial date was set for April 2009.

Mr. Clifford is teamed up with the firm's lead counsel, Michael Edelson, along with David Paciocco and Connie D'Angelo. Together, they will sift through evidence that won't see the light of day until next year. Until then, there are boundaries.

At first glance, Mr. Clifford looks more like a slick Bay Street lawyer than a guy from small-town Cape Breton. Pin-striped suit. Athlete's physique. Stylish haircut. With a father who worked as a bricklayer and his mother a stay-at-home mom, Mr. Clifford knows what it means to put in long hours. Only, instead of fishing or mining coal, he chose to flex his muscles in the courtroom.

He says that, as a young man growing up in Cape Breton in the 1960s and '70s, to think he would practise law successfully in Ottawa would have blown him away.

"I don't know if I would have believed" it would happen, he says, with a hint of Maritime lilt.

Defence lawyer Dominic Lamb worked with Mr. Clifford on the case of 23-year-old Bashir Sahal, who was killed by Ahmed Mohamed Ali and Ahmed Shurk Aden in his Caldwell Avenue apartment in 2003. Mr. Ali and Mr. Aden, both 24, pleaded guilty on Sept. 27 to second-degree murder and manslaughter, respectively. Both men were initially charged with first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder.

Mr. Lamb calls Mr. Clifford "the million-dollar man."

"To get where we got in that case, it was long hours, weekends, and nights. It would be like midnight, he'd be looking at a certain point, (saying,) 'Maybe we can do it this way'," says Mr. Lamb.

Mr. Clifford says he didn't know the meaning of preparation until he joined Edelson and Associates in 1995.

"You know how people say the guy (Edelson) is a machine?" he says. "I remember I would do work and bring it to him and say, 'OK. Look, I really think this is a great analysis, and this is my research.' And he would look at it, and I would be extremely proud of it, and he'd say, 'Well that's a great start' -- and it would be a Sunday afternoon and we would sit down for four or five hours and just grind it out."

Over the past 10 years, Mr. Clifford, 44, has worked on about a dozen murder trials and defended some of Ottawa's most notorious accused.

Mr. Clifford cut his teeth on a major trial involving Mark Anthony Williams, a member of the Ace Crew street gang who was convicted of first-degree murder in 1998 with two co-accused. They kidnapped Vanier teenager Sylvain Leduc and beat him to death on Oct. 26, 1995.

Then a few years later, Mr. Clifford represented one of three men accused of first-degree murder in the death of 25-year-old Stéphane Cleroux. Thanks in part to vigorous legal arguments about the quality of the evidence, the judge tossed out the first-degree murder charge, leaving lesser charges on the table. The jury convicted the three of manslaughter.

The best day of his legal career, Mr. Clifford says, came Oct. 29, 2005, when his client Dimitre Dimitrov was acquitted of the 1996 murder of his former landlord, Hristo Veltchev. After a 1999 conviction, four-and-a-half years in prison and a successful appeal, Mr. Dimitrov was exonerated -- 10 years after being charged.

"When the jury acquitted Dimitre Dimitrov, it felt like I had one thousand pounds (taken) off my shoulders," said Mr. Clifford.

Another bright moment came when a second-degree murder charge laid against an Ottawa man named Gilles Leclair for allegedly killing his wife was dropped. The Crown's case was based on one pathologist's theory that she died of strangulation, but another pathologist found the Crown expert's initial opinion was wrong.

It turned out Mrs. Leclair had fallen into a swimming pool in August 2003, after drinking and taking prescription medication, and drowned. Scarring inside her throat was possibly due to the paramedics inserting a breathing tube down her throat -- not compression marks from the hands of her husband, who served time in jail for a crime he did not commit.

"If the Crown pathologist says to you, 'These are my findings,' then you retain a defence expert and get some assistance," says Mr. Clifford. "I have gone and retained my own experts and said, 'Look, this is what I've learned, what else can you tell me? What avenues should I pursue?' And I have also done that in the area of DNA evidence."

Preparation starts with a complete review of the Crown's disclosure and determining what is missing -- what questions the evidence doesn't answer, and how the answers might help the defence. But Mr. Clifford says the "onerous" part of trial preparation is preparing to cross-examine Crown witnesses to find holes and inconsistencies in their testimony. A two-hour cross-examination in court could take almost nine hours to prepare, he says.

Mr. Clifford studied law at Dalhousie Law School and is enrolled at York University's Osgoode Hall law school, where he is working on a master's degree, specializing in criminal law.

In his first stint after law school, he was hired at Gowlings, Strathy & Henderson in 1989. He spent a year there, then worked in private practice until he joined Edelson and Associates.

He says he was drawn to criminal law because it gave students an opportunity to question whether the laws are fair and how criminal laws balance with constitutional rights. It was also an exciting time to be studying criminal law, only four years after the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted into Canada's Constitution in 1982.

Many of the seminal Charter cases that define the limits of government power today were decided when he was a student. These included fundamental cases like R. v. Oakes, a case decided by the Supreme Court in 1986 dealing with what the reasonable limits are on constitutional rights -- and specifically, how those limits apply to criminal laws that put the burden of proof on the defence rather than the Crown.

"In certain laws that were enacted, there was a presumption of guilt," says Mr. Clifford. "Like if you are found with a drug, and it is over a certain amount, it is presumed to be for trafficking. (It's called) a reverse-onus provision."

The court's ruling established that the provisions of the Charter could be relied upon to challenge government legislation. The Supreme Court now uses the case to make decisions on Charter rulings, applying a process of legal reasoning called the "Oakes test" to decide whether laws should be overridden.

For students of the law, watching this happen was like watching the creation of a new world.

Now he says he feels the "pendulum has swung."

"I think the courts are now more reluctant to find breaches of the Constitution," he says. "And when they do find breaches, they are far more reluctant to exclude evidence as a result of it."

Mr. Clifford says issues related to terrorism are highly relevant now -- which is why his master's thesis is focused on anti-terrorism legislation. He is looking at how different societies have dealt with the threat of terrorism, including Britain's experience with Irish nationalist terrorism and Canada's experience with the Front de libération du Québec and the October Crisis of 1970.

"Our experience in anti-terrorism legislation -- and in particular dealing with suspects of terrorism in Canada -- hasn't been very positive, and it shows our failings in this area," he says, highlighting failed cases such as that of Maher Arar, who was deported to Syria in 2002 and tortured when the U.S. government suspected him of being a member of al-Qaeda. The Canadian government later cleared Mr. Arar of any links to terrorism and gave him a $10.5-million settlement.

Mr. Clifford says Canada's "knee-jerk reaction" in introducing anti-terrorism legislation needs to be addressed in terms of the principles of sentencing.

"Canada has taken a 'get tough' approach on terrorism by enacting very stiff penalties, in the notion that terrorism can somehow be deterred," he says. "But for me it is hard to juxtapose the concept of deterrence with the concept of extremist fundamentalism. How do you deter someone who believes and is committed to an extremist cause and they are prepared to die for their cause?

"I don't see a planeload of terrorists turning the plane around and going back home because over there in Canada they just imposed 25-year sentences, so 'we'd better not go ahead with this.' It doesn't reconcile. It doesn't make any sense."

Mr. Clifford has been racking up air miles in recent weeks, flying back and forth to Winnipeg to work as associate commission counsel in a public inquiry into the investigation of the February 2005 death of Crystal Taman.

Ms. Taman was sitting in her car when she was struck from behind by a pickup truck driven by a Winnipeg police officer who had spent the night partying with fellow officers.

Mr. Clifford is the father of 10- and 11-year-old girls, an ardent art collector and a guitar player.

A former runner, after getting his legal career going he decided to lace up his shoes again about seven years ago, noticing he was letting his physical health slide. He thought it would help counterbalance the stress from his job.

"I remember doing some jury trials and we'd break for lunch and I'd run down to the barrister's change room and get my running stuff and go for a run," said Mr. Clifford with a boyish smirk.

"And people would say, 'What are you doing that for? How can you make time?' And I'd say, 'You don't understand, this has to be done.' It's better than a quick lunch or talking, because it gives you lots of energy to get through the afternoon."

He has competed all across Canada and the United States, with a goal to one day compete in the Iron Man triathlon in Hawaii.

A consummate professional, with acute attention to detail, Mr. Clifford leaves nothing to chance, Mr. Lamb says.

"Larry O'Brien doesn't come to you unless you have something to offer," says Mr. Lamb.

Mr. Clifford has "obviously reached a point where his knowledge of the law and how to approach a case has reached that senior counsel (status)," says Mr. Lamb. "When you think of all the senior counsel out there, if I were in trouble, he would be one of the guys I'd want."

© (c) CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.

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