Nathan Poffenbarger ’08, who stabbed Charles Holiday on West Campus Feb. 18 last year, pled guilty last Wednesday to two felonies.
Poffenbarger admitted to a felony assault as a hate crime and tampering with physical evidence. He faces an indefinite sentence of 1 1/3 to four years in state prison, according to Gwen Wilkinson, Tompkins County district attorney.
“In terms of tampering with physical evidence, Poffenbarger admitted to cleaning the blood off the knife he used and then dismantling it,” Wilkinson said. “He also admitted to cutting away the blood-stained parts of the clothing he was wearing and burning it in his wastebasket.”
As for the felony assault as a hate crime, Poffenbarger “admitted to stabbing the victim after screaming racial slurs,” Wilkinson said.
Poffenbarger’s sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 8 in Tompkins County Court.
“This is possibly the first felony conviction for a hate crime in Tompkins County,” Wilkinson said. “There may have been a misdemeanor conviction a few years ago.”
“What I learned while investigating this case is that some minority students feel like they are the target or subject of racial animosity,” Wilkinson said. “I’m not at all saying racial tensions are an issue being ignored by Cornell administration, but I’m saying I’ve found, through my investigation, that they are an issue.”
President David J. Skorton said, “I’m still concerned that some people think this campus might not be as friendly to some. I’m heartened by the feedback I’ve been getting.”
Simeon Moss ’73, press relations office director, when questioned about the University’s comments on Poffenbarger’s plea bargain, cited a prepared statement by Tommy Bruce, vice president for University Communications. The statement reads: “We believe this disturbing incident has been addressed properly by the court, and we are pleased that justice will be served in this matter. The stabbing was a traumatic event not only for the victim for whom we wish the best, but also for the entire campus. We hope this resolution will bring a measure of healing.”
Moss said that the healing process to which Bruce refers to is related to what grew out of the situation last February, namely statements made by Cornell officials, meetings among Cornell administration and panel discussions.
“Poffenbarger’s plea benefits the District Attorney’s office because we have the certainty of a conviction,” Wilkinson said. “We were seeking the conviction of a hate crime and state prison exposure.”
Wilkinson went on to explain that the guilty plea benefits Poffenbarger because he pled guilty to a charge of assault less serious than the original charge. Wilkinson clarified “less serious” to mean in terms of years of prison sentencing.
According to an Ithaca Journal article, before Poffenbarger stabbed Holiday, he drank alcohol in his dorm room on the evening of February 17, then attended a Sigma Pi fraternity party. The stabbing occurred after Poffenbarger left the party.
Poffenbarger turned himself into Cornell Police on February 18. Poffenbarger was — and still is, under the Cornell judicial system —temporarily suspended
pending a hearing on the merits.
According to Mary Beth Grant, judicial administrator, there are two types of suspension on the merits within the Cornell Campus Code of Conduct: a time-limited suspension and an indefinite suspension. Both of these are “on the merits,” meaning that the Hearing Board weighs evidence and then makes a determination of whether the accused person violated the Code.
Poffenbarger’s suspension differs from these two in that it is not “on the merits.”
“A suspension pending hearing on the merits happens in response to a serious incident requiring immediate reaction,” Grant said. “When the campus judicial system gives this type of suspension, the Hearing Board is not evaluating evidence to determine whether there is clear and convincing evidence that the student violated code, but there’s enough evidence to suggest that the accused’s presence on campus poses a risk to the community.”
Poffenbarger — or any student suspended pending hearing of the merits — faces a hearing with the University Hearing Board. At the hearing he primarily faces suspension or expulsion, but the Board has the option to decide a different consequence. A variety of sanctions exist.
Expulsion, or “dismissal” as it is referred to in the Code, means that a student can never again be part of the Cornell community.
“In a case involving serious violence, expulsion is the typical recommendation of the JA’s Office,” Grant said. “Violence has no place on the Cornell campus.”