A former U.S. Marine convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the April 2012 stabbing death of a fellow Marine following an altercation in which he allegedly called the victim an anti-gay name was sentenced Thursday to 11 years and three months in prison.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Russell Canan handed down the sentence for former Pfc. Michael Poth, 22, during a court hearing in which family members of Poth and Lance Corp. Phillip Bushong, 23, who died two hours after Poth stabbed him in the heart with a pocketknife, wept openly as the judge delivered the sentence.
“I never intended this to happen,” Poth told the court in a statement minutes before the sentencing. “I know Mr. Bushong’s family will never get their son back…This will leave me with a scar for the rest of my life.”
Robin Poth, Michael Poth’s mother, and Michael Bushong, Phillip Bushong’s father, each gave emotional statements to the judge describing what they said were the good qualities and character of their respective sons.
Although they disagreed over what the length of the sentence should be, they agreed that the outcome of an argument between Poth and Bushong that turned violent had a devastating impact on the two families.
“There are no winners in this case,” said defense attorney Bernard Grimm in his opening statement at the hearing. “Two young men had a terrible argument and one is dead,” he said.
“We have two sets of parents. One has a son and one doesn’t.”
In addition to a jail term of 135 months, Canan sentenced Poth to five years of supervised release upon completion of the prison term. Canan also credited Poth with the close to three and a half years he has already served in the D.C. jail since the time of his arrest in April 2012.
Canan noted that rules followed by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons give prison officials the authority to further reduce Poth’s sentence by 15 percent for good behavior.
A Superior Court jury found Poth guilty of voluntary manslaughter while armed on Dec. 2, 2013 following a nine-day trial. The jury found him not guilty of a more serious charge of second-degree murder while armed.
Police and prosecutors said the stabbing took place on 8th Street, S.E., across the street from the U.S. Marine Barracks on Capitol Hill following a run-in between the two Marines less than an hour earlier on the sidewalk outside a bar also across the street from the barracks.
Authorities said the two didn’t know each other prior to the fatal encounter. Bushong, who was scheduled to be honorably discharged from the Marines the following week, was visiting D.C. from North Carolina, where he was stationed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Liebman, the lead prosecutor in the case, pointed to testimony by witnesses that Bushong called Poth a “boot” when the two first crossed paths on the street. The term is used by Marines to describe new recruits and is considered an insult when used to describe a Marine serving a regular tour of duty.
Liebman argued that the insult angered Poth to such a degree that he made plans to track down Bushong after the two initially went their separate ways with the intent to stab him and kill him. The prosecutor told Canan at Thursday’s sentencing hearing that two Marine guards testified that they overheard Poth talking to himself in anger while waving his pocketknife in the air, saying he was going to cut out the lungs of the person he just exchanged words with.
After the Marine guards tried to calm him down, Poth told them he was going to the residence of a friend. But instead, witnesses and police said, he doubled back to where Bushong and friends were standing outside a bar and called Bushong a name.
One of Bushong’s friends standing beside him at that moment, a gay congressional staffer, testified that Poth called Bushong a “faggot.” Liebman argued that Poth hurled that slur with the intent of provoking Bushong into a fight in which Poth planned to stab him to death “just as he said he would do,” Liebman said during the trial.
Grimm, the defense attorney, argued at trial and at the sentencing that both men had been drinking, with reports surfacing that Bushong had been asked to leave a bar that night because he was intoxicated and causing trouble.
Grimm argued that Bushong along with his congressional staffer friend followed Poth, giving Poth the impression that they were going to attack him. Grimm pointed to witnesses who saw Bushong put his hand on Poth’s shoulder and retract his arm with a closed fist as if he was about to punch Poth.
At that point, Poth stabbed Bushong in the chest with the pocketknife in what Grimm said was an act of self-defense. Grimm also noted at the trial and at the sentencing that Bushong and his friend who followed him to where Poth was standing were both significantly taller and heavier than Poth, leading Poth to believe he was in danger.
Liebman, as he had at the trial, pointed out at the sentencing that D.C. police reported that while Poth was under arrest and in custody he overheard a police radio report saying Bushong was being transported by ambulance to a hospital. According to police, Poth responded by saying he was glad and he hoped Bushong would die.
At the sentencing, Robin Poth told of how her son’s small physical stature as a child subjected him to bullying in school. She said he learned from those experiences and later helped others who were disadvantaged, noting that he helped a friend who was being harassed for being gay.
“Michael stood up for him,” she said. “I ask you to consider the whole of my son when you sentence him,” she told the judge while sobbing. “He has always stood up for the disadvantaged, the little guy. He was always the little guy.”
Michael Bushong told the judge his son was a proud, loyal Marine who was looking forward to his life after the military. He said that while he deeply sympathizes with the Poth family he strongly believes the evidence shows that Poth deliberately sought to provoke his son into a fight with the intent to stab him.
“It was a fatal effect for Phil to fall for this pre-meditated trap” by Poth to plan a murder, he said. “It wasn’t a mistake that he plunged the knife into Phil’s heart. It wasn’t a mistake that he said he hopes he dies.”
Also speaking at the sentencing was Margo Blau, Bushong’s girlfriend, who said the two planned to marry shortly after Bushong was to be discharged from the Marines.
“His charming personality won me over,” she told the court, calling Bushong a warm, caring human being.
“Every day since April 2012 has been a struggle,” she said. “I have never felt so alone – a widow at 25 years old.”
Canan told the court that while both men clearly had been drinking, the insult that started the incident should never have led to a fatal stabbing. He said he agrees with the government’s argument that one cannot claim self-defense when one provokes an altercation.
“I believe the verdict was a just and fair verdict,” he said. “There is nothing I can say or do to change how the Bushong and Poth families feel.”
Canan noted that he read all of the letters – “some of them twice” that he received from both families about the good qualities of the two Marines.
“I’m very impressed by both families,” he said.