February 19, 2007

A Year After the Stabbing

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A year ago yesterday, Nathan Poffenbarger ’07 stabbed Charles Holiday, a visiting student from Union College, in front of Baker Hall near the intersection of University Avenue and West Avenue.

According to a voluntary statement given to the police by Jennifer Malvica ’07, who was with Poffenbarger at the time of the stabbing, Poffenbarger was at a party at Sigma Pi fraternity with other residents of the Transfer Center by 12:30 a.m.

In addition to the beer Poffenbarger drank at the fraternity house, Poffenbarger’s attorney said that the defendant consumed 12 shots of Southern Comfort liquor.

“Voluntary intoxication is not a defense to a crime in court,” District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson said in January.

Later in the evening, Poffenbarger “was evolving into a ‘nasty drunk,’” according to Malvica’s statement. Malvica, who stated that she was a resident advisor and it was her “job to control a situation,” reported trying to calm Poffenbarger, who is white, down after he began saying “some derogatory remarks toward black people.”

They then went downstairs and started dancing, according to her statement. After Poffenbarger again began to say “inappropriate” slurs about black people, Malvica attempted to make him leave the fraternity house.

According to court documents, Poffenbarger was “ejected from the fraternity at approximately 1 a.m.” for racial slurs and violent behavior. After hearing Poffenbarger use racial slurs, Holiday and his companions, Sean Washington and Matthew Fowles, who are black, came over to Poffenbarger and Malvica. Poffenbarger started to use racial epithets against them again, according to Malvica’s statement.

According to Washington’s statement, the four men argued for five to ten minutes before Poffenbarger began to walk away. Washington then told Poffenbarger, “Your girl saved you tonight”; Poffenbarger ran toward Holiday and Washington, according to Washington’s statement.

According to Malvica’s statement, as she and Poffenbarger walked away, Holiday, Washington and Fowles followed them.

Fowles reported that Poffenbarger repeatedly used racial slurs while walking away; Poffenbarger and Holiday then met face-to-face, and Poffenbarger pushed Holiday.

Washington stated that Malvica was holding him back when Poffenbarger ran at them.

Michael Nelson of the Ithaca Police Department reported exiting his police vehicle after being told of a potential fight by an individual passing by. Nelson stated that he saw a white female holding back a white male from three black males. Poffenbarger pushed the girl out of the way and “made an aggressive move” toward Holiday, according to Nelson.

Washington then yelled to Holiday that there was a police officer present, according to Washington’s statement. Everyone then looked at the officer, and Poffenbarger ran away behind Baker Hall, according to Nelson and Washington.

Malvica also left the group around this time. In September, Wilkinson told The Sun that there was no evidence that the female with Poffenbarger at the time, Malvica, had any part in the crime.

Some Baker residents reported hearing yelling as well as seeing blood and police tape outside their windows.

“We went to her room and looked out the window, and there were a bunch of people outside. One of the black students was being put on a stretcher. The police were cordoning off the area and telling people to get back. There was blood everywhere,” said Emily Schneider ’08, then a resident in Baker Tower.

When Washington, Holiday and Fowles were walking with the police officer, they noticed blood on Holiday’s shirt and at his feet. Holiday then asked to go to the hospital.

After returning to his room in the Transfer Center, Poffenbarger admitted to others, including Malvica, that he thought he stabbed someone. He cleaned the blood from his folding knife, dismantled it and hid it. Poffenbarger also cut a bloodstain out of his pants and burned the stained fabric.

Holiday was taken to Arnot Ogden Medical Center. Admitted to the Intensive Care Unit, doctors determined he had a punctured right lung and blood loss anemia. Full use of his right arm had not been regained at the time of Poffenbarger’s plea.

“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 during Poffenbarger’s sentencing in January.

After learning that the police were looking for him, Poffenbarger turned himself in on Feb. 18, 2006. He is still temporarily suspended from the University pending a hearing on the merits; he was also barred from campus following his arrest.

“In a case involving serious violence, expulsion is the typical recommendation of the J.A.’s Office,” Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant law ’88 said last year. “Violence has no place on the Cornell campus.

Poffenbarger transferred to Cornell from a college in Maryland at the beginning of the 2005-2006 school year. Before the stabbing, Poffenbarger was a member of the Cornell Democrats and a contributor to Turn Left.

In November, Poffenbarger pled guilty to assault as a hate crime and tampering with physical evidence.

“This is possibly the first felony conviction for a hate crime in Tompkins County,” Wilkinson said in January. “There may have been a misdemeanor conviction a few years ago.”

On Jan. 22, Poffenbarger was sentenced to 16 months to four years in state prison; he must also pay restitution of $17,499.03. Without the plea bargain, top counts against Poffenbarger could have led to a minimum of eight years.

“The plea offer is extremely lenient,” 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.” There was also psychological trauma, according to Wilkinson, that most victims of violent crimes suffer.

Poffenbarger’s plea bargain was made after consultation between Wilkinson, Holiday and his family, Poffenbarger’s attorney Joseph Joch ’66, Poffenbarger and his family.

Holiday also said during the sentencing that he is not pleased by the fact that Poffenbarger would be sent to prison but felt that justice was served.

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

Forty-five percent of the 469 respondents respondents to a recent non-scientific poll on cornellsun.com said they felt Poffenbarger “got what he deserved.” Another 20 percent said that “the district attorney should have gone for a harsher punishment,” while fourteen percent said “the sentencing was too harsh.” The remaining 22 percent responded, “who’s Nathan Poffenbarger?”