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Sentenced in near-fatal wreck, man says he's done with booze

May 6, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

With his voice breaking up and rising in pitch as he cried while talking about a crash that nearly killed a motorcycle rider, a Worland man promised a judge he would forever abstain from alcohol.

"The amends I wish to make are I promise I will never touch alcohol the rest of my life, and that is from the bottom of my heart," Robert Clifford said during his sentencing on April 26 in Lander's Ninth District Court.

Wearing orange jail clothes, Clifford said he wanted to tell the crash victim and the court "how deeply sorry that I am for the decision that I made on September 22nd of last year. I know I was wrong, and sorry isn't enough."

District Judge Norman E. Young sentenced Clifford to between three and eight years in prison for felony driving while under the influence causing serious bodily injury.

Clifford was the heavily intoxicated driver of a green 2003 Chevrolet truck who blew through a stop sign at the intersection of Highway 26 and Eight Mile Road where a motorcycle collided with him at about 5:06 p.m.

His blood alcohol content measured at .27, more than three times the state's legal limit of .08 for driving.

Motorcycle driver Kenneth Babb of Alberta, Canada, suffered serious injuries including a shattered pelvis that required air ambulance transportation to Casper and Colorado for treatment.

Babb, who was 63 at the time and on vacation, may not be able to enjoy his favorite outdoor activities such as mountain climbing and hiking "because Mr. Clifford was drunk," deputy county attorney Patrick LeBrun said in court.

LeBrun noted that Clifford is no stranger to driving under the influence.

"We're talking about a person who has ... had many brushes with the law for drinking and driving," he said.

"Mr. Clifford numerous times has been reminded you don't do that," the prosecutor said.

Clifford, who was 53 at the time of the crash, pleaded guilty to the felony on Jan. 5 under an agreement that resulted in dismissing another charge of driving under the influence and aggravated assault.

The plea agreement filed in court on Nov. 14 did not have a sentence recommendation.

LeBrun told the judge about the events surrounding the crash that included a suspected drunken driving report of Clifford's truck swerving off the road about 20 minutes prior.

"We knew about him before he got in this wreck," he said. Although the sheriff's office got the report, "they didn't get there in time."

Clifford went through the intersection on Eight Mile Road and Highway 26 where Babb on his motorcycle broadsided the Chevy truck, hitting the front area of the bed.

"All these terrible things happened," LeBrun said. "The one thing that did happen here is that Mr. Babb survived. ... It was pure luck."

The prosecutor described Babb as traveling at highway speeds at the time of the collision. "He got thrown so a lot of the impact was able to be absorbed," LeBrun said, noting the victim did not smash and stop into the truck's side.

Due to Clifford's previous drunken driving charges and the seriousness of the crash at hand, LeBrun called for a stiff sentence.

"This case, I think, approaches the maximum because of the notice he had, because of the level of intoxication he had, because of the damages that were caused," he said. "It certainly absolutely warrants a prison sentence because of the notice he had."

Defense attorney James Whiting of Lander compared Clifford's situation to that of late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was the driver of a car that crashed and killed his passenger.

"We can't let one incident, one mistake, define the value that an individual life might have on a society," Whiting said. "All Mr. Clifford can do going forward is apologize and do everything he can to make this right."

Based on his review of Clifford's criminal history, Young called it "a long and sad story."

The judge ordered Clifford to pay $152,676 in restitution to cover outstanding medical expenses for the victim. He also allowed 220 days of credit for time served following the crash.

"I'm just so sorry," Clifford said.

in court. "I did not mean for that to happen to him."

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