A D.C. Superior Court jury on Monday found a 22-year-old former U.S. Marine guilty of manslaughter while armed for the April 2012 stabbing death of a fellow Marine following an altercation in which he allegedly shouted an anti-gay slur.
After four days of deliberations that began prior to the Thanksgiving holiday weekend the jury found then Pfc. Michael Poth not guilty of a more serious charge of second-degree murder while armed.
Judge Russell Canan, who presided over the trial that lasted nearly 10 days, scheduled a sentencing hearing for Poth on Feb. 7. A conviction on manslaughter while armed carries a maximum penalty of 60 years in prison, although voluntary sentencing guidelines allow judges to hand down a significantly lower sentence.
A second-degree murder while armed conviction could have resulted in a 70-year prison sentence.
Poth 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 pocketknife on 8th Street, S.E., across the street from the Marine Barracks.
“Today a District of Columbia jury held Michael Poth accountable for stabbing a fellow Marine to death on a public street near their barracks,” said U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen under whose office the case was prosecuted.
“Their guilty verdict makes clear that our community will not tolerate the deadly violence that so often arises from petty disputes.”
The lead prosecutor in the case stated at a pre-trial hearing last year that the stabbing appeared to be a hate crime. But the government never formally classified the case as a hate crime, a designation that could have resulted in a more severe sentence.
Marine Corps officials discharged Poth from active-duty service on less than honorable circumstance shortly after his arrest. Poth had been stationed at the 8th and I Streets, S.E. barracks at the time of the incident. Bushong, who was stationed in North Carolina, was visiting friends in D.C. at the time of the altercation that led to his death just days before he was scheduled to be honorably discharged from the Marines.
Poth’s defense attorney argued that Poth, who admitted he stabbed Bushong, did so in self-defense following a verbal altercation that turned violent. The attorney, Bernard Grimm, told the jury that Bushong was the aggressor and that he followed Poth after the two got into a verbal exchange.
One witness, a friend of Bushong’s who testified that he’s gay, told the jury Poth called him and Bushong a faggot. The witness, congressional staffer Nishith Pandya, said Bushong was straight and the two were platonic friends. Pandya testified that he did not know how Poth could have known he’s gay, although at least one witness said Poth may have seen Bushong and Pandya hugging each other on the sidewalk as they left a bar.
Grim argued that Poth was smaller than Bushong. He cited testimony by a Marine guard who witnessed part of the altercation and who said he saw Bushong put one hand on Poth’s shoulder and pulled back his other hand as if he were about to throw a punch. It was at that point that Poth stabbed Bushong, according to witnesses.
Grimm also argued that at least one witness testified that Bushong was ordered to leave one of the bars along the street where the incident took place because he was intoxicated and was acting in a boisterous manor. Poth was also believed to have been intoxicated, witnesses said.
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 when the two Marines first crossed paths on 8th Street sometime earlier in the evening.
He noted that a witness testified that she heard Poth say to himself that he planned to stab someone as he walked along 8th Street after the earlier exchange of words between Poth and Bushong. A D.C. police detective testified that Poth said shortly after his arrest that he hoped Bushong would die when he overheard someone say over a police radio that Bushong was being taken by ambulance to a hospital.
Prosecutors said Bushong was pronounced dead at the hospital about two hours after the stabbing. An autopsy showed he died of a single knife wound that punctured his heart.
“He announced his intention,” Liebman told the jury in disputing Poth’s claim of self-defense. “He is looking for Lance Corp. Bushong. He wants to do what he said he would do. He wants to stab him.”
In concluding his closing arguments, Liebman said, “You don’t get to proclaim self-defense when you proclaim intent to stab someone before you come into contact with them. The law doesn’t allow you to use deadly force before you have contact.”
Local attorney Dale Edwin Sanders, who practices criminal law in D.C. and Virginia, said the verdict appears fair in a case where the victim was shown through witness testimony to have decided to engage in an altercation rather than walk away from it, even though the stabbing was unjustified.
“I’m sure the prosecutors think this is a major victory,” Sanders said. “They didn’t get their second-degree murder conviction but in D.C. the penalty for manslaughter is nearly as great as it is for Murder II,” he said.
“This sounds like a well-reasoned verdict, a compromise verdict,” said Sanders. “The jury didn’t buy the self-defense claim because they would have acquitted him on both charges if they accepted self-defense.”
Sanders added, “This is not like the jury gave him a pass…He’s convicted of a deliberate homicide. They’re just saying it wasn’t pre-meditated. Manslaughter is a form of murder without pre-meditation.”