A D.C. Superior Court jury began deliberations on Friday over whether a 21-year-old former U.S. Marine should be found guilty of second degree murder while armed for stabbing a fellow Marine to death after allegedly shouting an anti-gay slur following an April 2012 altercation.
Pfc. Michael Poth, who has since been discharged from the Marines, has been held in jail since the time D.C. police arrested him on April 21, 2012, minutes after witnesses said he stabbed Lance Corp. Phillip Bushong, 23, in the upper chest with a pocket knife on 8th Street, S.E., across the street from the Marine Barracks.
Bushong was pronounced dead less than an hour later after being taken to a hospital. An autopsy showed he died of a single knife wound that punctured his heart.
Gay congressional staff member Nishith Pandya, a friend of Bushong’s who emerged as a lead prosecution witness, testified that Poth called him and Bushong a “faggot” while the two stood with others on the sidewalk outside Mollie Malone’s restaurant and bar as Poth walked by.
Pandya, who works for U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), told the jury he’s gay and that he and Bushong, who was straight, were platonic friends.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Liebman, the lead prosecutor in the case, said Poth hurled the anti-gay slur with the intent of provoking Bushong into a confrontation to give Poth an excuse to stab Bushong. Liebman cited testimony by witnesses that Poth became angry over a remark that Bushong made to Poth about an hour earlier when the two Marines first crossed paths on 8th Street.
A police report says Poth told D.C. police homicide detectives after the stabbing that Bushong called him a “boot,” a slang term used for a Marine just out of boot camp.
“Call me boots and the fight started,” the police report quoted Poth as saying. “He was talking shit so I stabbed him…I stabbed him because he punched me in the head,” the report quoted him as saying.
In his closing argument, Liebman pointed to a civilian witness who testified that she saw someone fitting Poth’s description walking along 8th Street saying to himself he was going to stab somebody. Liebman cited testimony by a police detective that Poth told police at the time of his arrest, upon learning that Bushong was being taken to a hospital, “Good, I hope he dies.”
The prosecutor said other witnesses, including Marine guards who were watching Poth walk past them on 8th Street and nearby streets prior to the stabbing, made it clear that Poth wanted to confront Bushong again and was walking up and down the street looking for him.
“You don’t get to claim self-defense when you proclaim intent to stab someone before you come into contact with them,” Liebman told the jury. “The law doesn’t allow you to use deadly force before you have contact” in a self-defense claim, Leibman said.
Poth’s attorney, Bernard Grimm, told the jury Poth acted in self-defense and that the stabbing came after Bushong and Pandya walked toward Poth at the time of the verbal altercation outside Mollie Malone’s. Grimm said the jury should be skeptical about Pandya’s claim that Poth made an anti-gay slur.
Grimm pointed out repeatedly that Poth, who weighs 140 pounds and is five-feet-seven inches tall, was far smaller than Bushong, who was over 6 feet tall and Pandya, who weighs more than 200 pounds.
He said one of several videos obtained from security cameras deployed by businesses along 8th Street suggested that Poth had been on the ground and stood up just before the stabbing. This corroborated Poth’s claim that Bushong punched him in the head and knocked him down and that Poth stabbed Bushong in self-defense, Grimm said.
Leibman and Grimm played video footage from security cameras of several of the businesses along the street, but none of the video footage captured the stabbing.
Grimm called Pandya’s testimony unreliable, saying that Pandya told police the person who stabbed Bushong was wearing khaki colored short pants when it was clear to all other witnesses that he was wearing blue jeans. He said Pandya, knowing that the stabbing took place after Bushong followed Poth and acted as the aggressor, didn’t want police to talk to Poth out of fear that it would become clear that his friend was the instigator of the fight that broke out between Bushong and Poth.
“He was in it up to his ears,” Grimm said. “He egged Bushong on.”
Grimm also reminded the jury that witnesses said Bushong was asked to leave one of the bars on 8th Street on the night of the incident because he was intoxicated and acting in a boisterous and disruptive manor.
“Someone said don’t let him get near anyone on the street,” Grimm told the jury, saying someone in the bar feared Bushong would hurt someone.
Liebman told the jury that although Pandya got the clothing description of Poth wrong, his testimony on what unfolded between Poth and Bushong was correct.
“Mr. Grimm wants you to believe that you can’t believe anything that Mr. Pandya said,” Liebman told the jury, including Pandya’s testimony that Poth used the word “faggot” to insult Bushong.
“Mr. Pandya is gay. Do you think he heard that right?” said Liebman. “You better believe it. He had no reason to make that up.”
The jury began its deliberations about 2 p.m. on Friday. Judge Russell Canan, who’s presiding over the trial, sent the jurors home for the weekend just before 5 p.m. They were scheduled to resume deliberations about 10 a.m. Monday.
A conviction on second-degree murder while armed carries a possible maximum sentence of 70 years in jail. If it finds Poth not guilty on the second-degree murder charge it has the option of finding him guilty of a lesser offense of manslaughter.