January 23, 2007

Poffenbarger '08 Faces Up to 4 Years

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Nathan Poffenbarger ’08 was sentenced yesterday in Tompkins County Court to 16 months to four years in state prison for stabbing visiting Union College student Charles Holiday last February. Poffenbarger pled guilty in November to assault as a hate crime and tampering with physical evidence. At the sentencing, Holiday delivered an emotional recount of his tribulations after the stabbing.

Poffenbarger will go to Elmira Correctional Facility to be classified and tested before he is sent to a state maximum security prison. In addition to prison time, Poffenbarger must pay restitution of $17,499.03.

Joseph Joch ’66, Poffenbarger’s attorney, attempted to vacate the plea bargain Poffenbarger made in November, but was denied.
Holiday’s presence at court was partly to assist Hon. John C. Rowley with sentencing Poffenbarger appropriately.

If Poffenbarger had not agreed to the plea bargain and had gone to trial with the top counts against him, he would have faced a minimum of up to eight years in prison.

“The plea offer is extremely lenient,” Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson said. “Especially in consideration of the long-lasting damage to Holiday’s right arm, his collapsed lung, blood loss anemia and the fact that he’s a year behind in graduating from Union College.”

Wilkinson added that Holiday also suffered from the psychological trauma that most victims of violent crimes suffer. Poffenbarger’s plea bargain was made after lengthy consultation between Wilkinson, Holiday and his family, and Joch, Poffenbarger and his family.

Holiday spoke in court and began his statement by expressing the belief that the last time he was in the presence of Poffenbarger, he believed his own life was in danger.

“Eleven and a half months ago, I couldn’t bathe, walk, use my right arm, I was pumped with morphine and had to a syringe injected in my rib cage so the blood could be removed from my lung,” Holiday said. “I’ll never forget the way my parents looked at me in the hospital bed in Elmira. I’m an only child and I don’t like to see my mother cry.”

Holiday also said that he hopes Poffenbarger will be more progressive in making decisions involving race in the future. The victim went on to say that racism still lives on within America’s borders and that choosing to hate someone based on their skin color is pointless.

After the trial, Holiday said he stands by his actions the night of the stabbing — in spite of the year-long ordeal that has ensued. Holiday also said that he is not pleased by the fact that Poffenbarger would be sent to prison, but feels that justice was served.

Poffenbarger was prohibited by law to have any contact with Holiday — even through third parties. However, in court, Joch read an appended letter Poffenbarger wrote to the victim.

The letter began with Poffenbarger’s “deep and sincere apology for the emotional and physical pain” he caused to Holiday and his family. Poffenbarger’s letter said that the stabbing was a result of Poffenbarger’s general self-destructive urge and that it was a product of his “bad emotional state.”

“What I did was an act of rage; it was self-hate, fear, frustration,” Poffenbarger’s letter read. His letter continued to read that Poffenbarger is very sorry to have become an instrument of what he truly detests — intolerance — and that in the future he hopes to make his actions represent his beliefs.

He went on, in the letter, to say that the stabbing incident was the most irrational and costly action he has ever made.
During the plea bargain process, Wilkinson made a high priority of convicting Poffenbarger of a hate crime.

Rowley said that on the night of the stabbing, “racial hatred was spewed in many directions by Poffenbarger and that the scars of racial hatred that run deep in our society were ripped open.” Rowley commended Holiday for “standing up to the behavior coming from Poffenbarger and bearing witness to evil,” and said that there would have been a different outcome had they not have confronted Poffenbarger.

Wilkinson said she had heard about the role that alcohol may have played on Feb. 18, the night the stabbing occurred. According to the defense, Poffenbarger drank 12 shots of Southern Comfort before stabbing Holiday.

“Voluntary intoxication is not a defense to a crime in court,” Wilkinson said. “His thoughtful actions to conceal the stabbing belie the role intoxication played that night,” Wilkinson said, referring to the fact that after the stabbing, Poffenbarger dismantled the knife and burnt a piece of his jeans in a garbage can.

In Poffenbarger’s application to vacate, Joch cited a character witness to confirm that Poffenbarger’s political and social views are
“unqualifiedly racially tolerant.” According to the documents, Poffenbarger was a member of the Cornell Democrats.

Joch said that as an ex-convict and convicted felon, Poffenbarger would be virtually unemployable.

In court, Joch said that Poffenbarger was on Paxil at the time of the stabbing. In court documents relating to the application to vacate the guilty plea, Joch said that Paxil, an anti-depressant, “has a history of adverse reactions with certain people, and can lead them to depression, suicide, or violence.”

“Poffenbarger’s situation shows what can go wrong with binge drinking, and that Cornell needs to develop ways to deal with binge drinking,” said Justin Davis ’07, president of the Black Students’ Union. “It’s important to not be scared to talk about racism.”