Campaign to Free Charmaine Pfender
Self-defense is not a crime: Charmaine Pfender was 18 years old when she took a life for protecting herself against rape and at 19, she was sentenced to life without parole. Charmaine has served 29 years in prison. When the man she was on a date with pulled a knife and attempted to rape her, Charmaine struggled back, reached for a gun and fired a warning shot out the side window. When she tried to flee her attacker, he chased after her with a knife in hand, so she shot and killed him. Charmaine should never have been convicted of murder. She fought for her life against a knife-wielding man who was attempting to rape her. This is self-defense, not a crime.
Charmaine fought for her life – her lawyer at trial did not: Charmaine’s attorney at trial did not fight for his client. He did not assertively argue that Charmaine’s only choice was between being raped or fighting back.
In fact, he went out of his way to undermine her case: in his closing statement, Charmaine’s attorney praised the police for putting together the case against her; told the jury that his client’s testimony was self-interested and biased, stated that the inconsistencies in the testimony of the only witness against Charmaine were not a big deal; said that Charmaine was guilty of bad judgment and stupidity and that the jury had to find her guilty of aggravated assault. He failed to report that she acted while triggered by trauma and gripped by panic in the aftermath of a potentially lethal attempted rape. He ended by asking for a “fair verdict,” not an acquittal based on self-defense.
He did not call any witnesses to testify to Charmaine’s character, which would have demonstrated to the jury that she was a normal teenage girl. This would have undermined the depiction of Charmaine as a cold-blooded killer that was constructed by the prosecution and amplified through the sensationalist press coverage of the case.
Moreover, he failed to call expert witnesses on trauma, sexual assault, and mental health to explain to the jury why Charmaine panicked after her act of self-defense. The jury was not given adequate context as to why Charmaine followed and wounded the friend of the man who was attempting to rape her due to her fear that he too would attack her.
The jury never heard expert testimony about rape culture and the consistency with which women who speak out and fight back against rape are disbelieved, mocked, stigmatized and criminalized. The jury was not allowed to understand that Charmaine fled because she feared she would not be believed when she told the truth about shooting in self-defense.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Charmaine had already suffered physical and psychological trauma. We believe Charmaine acted in accordance with the emotional maturity of someone her age with her specific history and that she could not have foreseen the consequences of her actions at the time of the assault. This should have been brought out at trial.
The only witness against Charmaine was not credible: The only witness to corroborate the government’s case was Suat Erdogan. Suat was the friend of Engin, the man who attempted to rape Charmaine in the back seat of the car that night. Suat was in the front seat during the assault.
Suat confirmed that Engin and he first approached Charmaine and her friend Sara on Sunday night. On Monday night, it was Engin who paid for drinks at Tramp’s Bar. Both Charmaine and Sara testified that Charmaine became upset when Engin attempted to force himself on Charmaine multiple times at the bar. Their story was supported by the testimony of an employee at Tramp’s, yet Suat denied that Charmaine and Engin had any argument that night.
In his initial police report, Suat did not state that there was any kissing at Tramp’s Bar, omitting what Sara and Charmaine consistently identified as the primary interest of the young men – sexual gratification. Although he admitted at trial that he was kissing Sara at Tramp’s, he denied being sexually attracted to her, and claims he had no expectation of further sexual contact when he met Sara the next night.
Before the trial, Suat told three police officers that Engin had struck Charmaine in the face. At trial he denied this had happened.
Although the prosecution attempts to portray Charmaine and Sara as having a premeditated plan to murder the two young men, Suat’s testimony was that Charmaine and Sara were 45 minutes late to their date on Tuesday night because they were at softball practice. Playing softball and risking missing a date due to their being late is inconsistent with a premeditated plot to murder.
At trial, Suat, a Turkish exchange student, blamed inconsistencies in his story on a language barrier, but was clearly able to understand and speak English when he chose to.
Life-without-parole is a human rights violation: Life-without-parole is a sentence to die in prison. There is no possibility of release. Ever. Rehabilitation, forgiveness, redemption, transformation, and the ability of a person to reconnect with their families and communities in healthy and meaningful ways do not matter to the state of Pennsylvania. People sentenced to life-without-parole are forever condemned to be defined by a single criminal conviction, punished unto death, legally and permanently excluded from society, branded non-citizens and sub-humans, regardless of their actual culpability or the person they become.
In Pennsylvania, there are two crimes that carry a sentence of life-without-parole: first and second-degree homicide. (Second-degree homicide is based on the felony murder law, which allows a person to be sentenced to murder for participating in a felony during which a murder takes place, regardless of whether they participated in the murder or had any intent to do so.) Pennsylvania has a larger percentage of its prison population serving life-without-parole than any other state in the country. More than 5,000 people are serving life-without-parole in Pennsylvania, second only to Florida’s 7,000-plus, although Florida’s prison system is nearly twice as large.
There is no evidence that life-without-parole effectively deters crime, or imprisons people who would otherwise continue committing criminal acts. The leading predictive factor of criminal activity is age: the older a person gets, the less likely they are to commit crimes. Additionally, homicide is one of the crimes with the lowest recidivism rate. Life-without-parole ends up keeping an increasingly aging prison population locked up despite the strong evidence that these people pose a very low risk for committing criminal acts.
Life-without-parole, like the death penalty, imposes a permanent disruption on the families and communities that these prisoners come from. It reinforces the psychological harm imposed on oppressed communities by conveying the erroneous message that offenders from these communities are distinctly irredeemable: they must be locked up forever because they could never change.
Life-without-parole, along with other death-in-prison sentences, have been condemned by members of the international community. The European Court of Human Rights recently declared that life-without-parole sentences amounted to “inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners,” and made them illegal under the European Convention on Human Rights. Germany, France, and Italy have declared life-without-parole unconstitutional, and Portugal, Norway, Spain, Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia, El Salvador, Peru, and Mexico have outlawed any form of a life sentence as they consider it a violation of human rights.
In Charmaine’s case, the sentence of life-without-parole carries a particularly sinister message: if a woman defends herself against sexual violence, the state will imprison her until she dies.
Charmaine leads a model life in prison and is not a threat to public safety: During her time at SCI Cambridge Springs Charmaine has devoted herself to personal growth and service. She is housed in the honor cottage and has received the highest prisoner rating available to lifers. She has sought out education and become a certified carpenter, completing over 10,000 hours of training. She has also studied business and computing and has worked diligently at her prison job in the law library. Additionally, she has completed courses in Violence Prevention and Anger Management and currently gives back to the community by knitting 2-4 sweaters a month for children in need through the Lion’s Club. Just recently, Charmaine was elected president of the Phoenix inmate organization which engages in charitable activities. In her free time, Charmaine plays volleyball and enjoys staying up-to-date on current events. She maintains close and loving relationships with her mother, sister, and extended family. In short, she is a normal, compassionate person who is doing her best to live a meaningful life despite the constraints that society has placed upon her. Just imagine who she could be if she were allowed to be free!