A 29-year-old gay congressional staff member emerged as the star witness this week in a murder trial in D.C. Superior Court of a former U.S. Marine charged with stabbing a fellow Marine to death in April 2012 outside the Marine Barracks on Capitol Hill.
Police and prosecutors charged Pfc. Michael Poth, 21, with second-degree murder while armed for allegedly using a pocketknife to fatally stab Lance Corp. Phillip Bushong, 23, following an altercation on 8th Street, S.E., in which Poth called Bushong an anti-gay name.
Bernard Grimm, Poth’s defense attorney, has argued during the trial, which began on Nov. 14, that his client acted in self-defense after Bushong and Bushong’s friend, gay congressional staffer Nishith Pandya, 29, appeared ready to assault him during the altercation, according to an account by the Washington Post.
The Post reported that Pandya testified that Poth hurled an anti-gay slur at him and Bushong as Poth walked past them while Bushong and Pandya were standing on the sidewalk outside a bar on 8th Street across the street from the Marine Barracks.
Pandya told the jury he was gay and had no idea how Poth knew his sexual orientation when he made the anti-gay slur, the Post reported. Bushong’s family members have said he was not gay. Pandya testified that he and Bushong were “platonic friends,” according to the Post.
Before the trial began, a Marine Barracks spokesperson said Poth was in the process of being discharged under less than honorable circumstances prior to the stabbing incident on grounds that he initiated “verbal altercations” with other Marines and was found to be in possession of a chemical derivative of marijuana.
Other witnesses told police prior to the trial that they saw Poth acting erratically and appeared to be in a heightened state of anger as he walked along 8th Street just before the stabbing incident. A police arrest affidavit said surveillance cameras captured part of the altercation on video, which the Post said was shown to the jury.
In an unusual development, one of the jurors sent a note to Superior Court Judge Russell Canan, who is presiding over the trial, with several questions for Pandya, public records posted on the court’s website shows. It couldn’t immediately be determined if Canan agreed to call Pandya back to the witness stand to answer the juror’s questions.
The trial was expected to continue through most of this week.
Grimm, Poth’s lead defense attorney, served as one of the lead defense attorneys in the 2010 trial of three gay men charged with obstruction of justice and evidence tampering in the widely publicized murder of attorney Robert Wone inside their Dupont Circle area townhouse. A judge found the men not guilty following a non-jury trial.