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Jury deliberating Marine murder case

Suspect allegedly shouted anti-gay slur before stabbing victim

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Marine Barracks, gay news, Washington Blade

Lance Corp. Phillip Bushong was stabbed in the upper chest with a pocketknife on 8th Street, S.E., across from the Marine Barracks. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A D.C. Superior Court jury completed its third day of deliberations on Tuesday without reaching a verdict 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 during an April 2012 altercation.

Judge Russell Canan gave jurors Wednesday and Friday off for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and instructed them to return Monday, Dec. 2, to resume their deliberations.

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 pocketknife 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.

Pandya testified that Bushong never hit Poth.

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.

Grimm pointed to testimony by a Marine guard who witnessed part of the altercation that Bushong at one point changed directions and followed Poth after the two crossed paths on the sidewalk while walking on 8th Street.

The Marine testified that Bushong reached toward Poth and put one hand on Poth’s shoulder and motioned with his other hand as if he was about to throw a punch. It was at that time that Poth appears to have stabbed Bushong, the Marine 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.”

Although Liebman said at a pre-trial hearing in April 2012 that prosecutors considered the stabbing to be a hate crime, the government never formally charged Poth with a hate crime. A hate crime designation enables a judge to hand down a more severe sentence than what is normally required for a particular offense.

The jury began its deliberations about 2 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22, 10 days after the trial began on Nov. 12. Judge Russell Canan, who’s presiding over the trial, sent the jurors home for the weekend just before 5 p.m. They resumed deliberations about 10 a.m. Monday, Nov. 25 and continued through Tuesday afternoon.

A conviction on second-degree murder while armed carries a possible maximum sentence of 70 years in jail. If the jury finds Poth not guilty on the second-degree murder charge it has the option of finding him guilty of a lesser offense of manslaughter.

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2023 Best of LGBTQ DC Readers’ Choice Award Finalist Voting

Vote for your favorite finalists through October 2nd!

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It is time to celebrate the best of LGBTQ+ DC! You nominated and now we have our finalists. Vote for your favorites in our 2023 Best of LGBTQ DC categories through October 2nd. Our 2023 Best of LGBTQ DC will be announced at the Best of LGBTQ DC Awards Party on October 19th and our special issue will come out on Friday, October 20th.

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District of Columbia

Whitman-Walker celebrates opening of new Max Robinson Center

Mayor, city officials call facility major benefit for Southeast D.C.

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D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser cut a ceremonial ribbon on Monday to mark the official opening of Whitman-Walker’s new Max Robinson Center. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, joined by city officials and leaders of Whitman-Walker Health, cut a ceremonial ribbon on Monday to mark the official opening of Whitman-Walker’s new Max Robinson Center at the city’s St. Elizabeth’s East campus in Southeast D.C.

The six-story healthcare and research facility will enable Whitman-Walker to expand its wide range of services to the community, with a focus on Ward 7 and Ward 8 residents, officials said. Those services, which began when the facility opened its doors on Aug. 14, include primary, dental, and HIV care, behavioral health services, substance use counseling, and a pharmacy, according to a Whitman-Walker statement.

“Today, we’re opening a bigger Max Robinson Center, and in two years we’ll be opening a new hospital on this same campus – and together, these two facilities are going to change the way we deliver healthcare in D.C.,” Bowser told the crowd of about 200 that turned out for the event held in a courtyard next to the newly opened building.

“We’re incredibly grateful that Whitman-Walker is part of the legacy that we’re building on the St. Elizabeths East campus,” the mayor said. “This campus represents our commitment to Ward 8 and our community to a stronger, healthier, and equitable D.C.”

Whitman-Walker and city officials noted that the new building replaces the longtime LGBTQ supportive health care organization’s original Max Robinson Center that opened in 1993 on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Anacostia about a mile away from the new facility. The center was named in honor of award-winning TV news journalist Max Robinson who became the first African American to serve as co-anchor of a network news program at ABC News in 1978. Robinson died of complications associated with HIV/AIDS in 1988.

Bowser and others who spoke at the event praised Whitman-Walker for providing high quality healthcare through its Max Robinson center for underserved communities in city neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

The opening of the new Max Robinson Center comes on Whitman-Walker’s 50th year since its founding in 1973 as an LGBTQ community health clinic in a church basement in Georgetown, Whitman-Walker CEO Naseema Shafi noted at the ribbon cutting event.

“We are thrilled to unveil this once-in-a-lifetime healthcare and research expansion during our 50th anniversary year,” Shafi said. “Our new healthcare home will significantly improve access to excellent healthcare for all residents,” she said.

Among other things, the new facility will allow Whitman-Walker to serve an additional 10,000 patients per year more than it was able to serve at the original Max Robinson Center, a statement released by Whitman-Walker says. An important part of its services will include mental health and behavioral services, officials said.

There are more than 40 exam rooms, eight dental suites, six group therapy rooms and a psychotherapy suite in the new facility, the officials said in the statement.

The statement says the new building will also serve as headquarters for the Whitman-Walker Institute, an arm of the healthcare organization that for many years has conducted HIV related research. It says the new facility will allow Whitman-Walker to expand its research “from 19 to over 60 clinical trials, including innovations in cancer research and continued progress toward finding a cure for HIV.”

Others who attended or spoke at the event included D.C. Council members Christina Henderson (I-At-Large), Trayon White (D-Ward 8), and Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7); Japer Bowles, director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs; Latrena Owens, executive director of St. Elizabeths East Development; and Debrah Wells, a Whitman-Walker patient who said the substance use treatment and counseling she received at the Max Robinson Center “saved my life.”

Also speaking were Louis Dubin, managing partner of Redbrick development company, which led the development of the building project; and Jim Davis, president of Davis Construction, the company that built the new facility. Both pointed out that they worked with banks and other lenders along with financial support from the city that made the financing of the new Max Robinson Center possible.

Whitman-Walker CEO Shafi told the Washington Blade after the ribbon cutting event that while Whitman-Walker has expanded its services to include the wider community in the years since its founding as an LGBTQ clinic, its commitment to serving the healthcare needs of the LGBTQ community continues in all its facilities, including the new Max Robinson Center.

“What’s interesting about Whitman-Walker of today — when we started in 1973, we were started by community for community, and we were responding to the needs at that time particularly of the LGBTQ community,” she said. “So, now we’ve continued to take care of people, we will continue to do so,” she added.

“And this new site in Congress Heights gives us the opportunity to take care of even more community members, parts of the LGBTQ community and the greater Washington region,” she said, noting that Whitman-Walker currently has about 2,500 transgender or gender expansive people in care, and 3,500 people with HIV in care.

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District of Columbia

Man charged in 2019 D.C. gay murder sentenced to 16 years

Distraught family members urged judge to hand down longer prison term

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Vongell Lugo was stabbed to death on Jan. 6, 2019. (Courtesy photo)

Former U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman Collin J. Potter, 31, who earlier this year pleaded guilty to second-degree murder while armed for the Jan. 6, 2019, stabbing death of gay D.C. resident Vongell Lugo, was sentenced Sept. 15 by a D.C. Superior Court judge to 16 years in prison and five years of supervised probation upon his release.  

The sentencing took place at a hearing in which Assistant United States Attorney Peter V. Roman, the lead prosecutor in the case, described in gruesome detail how Potter stabbed Lugo 42 times inside Lugo’s Northwest D.C. apartment shortly after the two met at a D.C. bar and Potter accepted Lugo’s invitation to come to the apartment.

Superior Court Judge Marisa Demeo handed down her sentence after listening to testimony by Lugo’s mother, brother, and sister, and seven of Lugo’s friends, who presented highly emotional victim impact statements describing Lugo as a beloved figure whose brutal murder had a devastating impact on their lives.

Nearly all of the 10 who spoke – eight in the courtroom and two through a live video hookup – urged the judge to hand down a far greater prison term than the 14 to 16-year sentence that prosecutors with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C. offered and Potter accepted in exchange for pleading guilty as part of a plea bargain deal. The plea arrangement made it clear that the judge would make the final decision on what the sentence should be.

Under D.C. criminal law, judges have the discretion to hand down a sentence of up to life in prison for a second-degree murder conviction.

Many of the family members and friends wept as they described Lugo, 36, as a loving, caring person who enriched their lives and who was taken from them by Potter in an unimaginable act of violence.

The sentencing took place a little over seven months after Potter, who was 26 at the time of the murder, pleaded guilty to the charge of second-degree murder while armed and prosecutors dropped their original charge of first-degree murder while armed and other related charges as part of the plea bargain deal.

Court records show that at the request of prosecutors, a D.C. Superior Court grand jury on Aug. 20, 2019, indicted Potter on five counts related to the murder, including two counts of first-degree felony murder while armed, felony murder while armed with aggravating circumstance, and kidnapping.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has declined to disclose why prosecutors offered the plea deal that included dropping those charges and allowing Potter to plead guilty to second-degree murder rather than bringing Potter to trial on the first-degree murder and other charges.  

Attorneys familiar with this type of case have said prosecutors usually offer a plea deal when they are uncertain whether they can convince a jury to find someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt at a trial.

At the Sept. 15 sentencing hearing, Potter’s defense attorney, Matthew Davies of the D.C. Public Defender Service, told the judge one reason why the plea offer made sense was it avoided a trial in which Potter would likely have used the defense of insanity or severe mental health problems, that Davies said his client is currently grappling with.

Davies pointed to information submitted by the defense that Potter has a history of trauma brought about by being sexually abused as a child. He said Potter also has an alcohol abuse problem and related mental health issues, and those factors led to the stabbing incident that took the life of Lugo.

He asked the judge to hand down a sentence of 14 years of incarceration, saying that would adequately serve the cause of justice for this case.

The subject of Potter’s mental health also surfaced in a 10-page sentencing memorandum that Roman filed in court two days before the sentencing, and which Roman summarized at the hearing, including the recommendation of a sentence of 16 years of incarceration.

The sentencing memo begins by describing Lugo as an “openly gay man who was born and raised in Trinidad & Tobago before emigrating to the United States with his family several years ago.” One of Lugo’s friends told the Washington Blade that Lugo had been working as an associate manager for a company that provides language translation services.

The sentencing memo says police arrived at Lugo’s apartment about 4 a.m. on Jan 6, 2019, when two neighbors called 911 after hearing Lugo screaming for help through the walls of their adjoining apartments.

It says police arrived shortly after Potter, who was fully nude and covered in Lugo’s blood, had dragged Lugo’s nude body outside the apartment door into the apartment building hallway.

“After the police arrived, the defendant made several statements,” the sentencing memo says. “He repeatedly referred to Mr. Lugo as his girlfriend and as a female and stated that Mr. Lugo’s injuries were self-inflicted,” the memo continues. “The defendant then banged his own head against the wall and started screaming obscenities and that he did not want to live,” it says.

Several of the close to 20 friends and family members of Lugo who were sitting in the courtroom as prosecutor Roman presented these details were crying.

Defense attorney Davies told the judge that he informed Potter that he had a strong defense based on mental health issues if the case went to trial. But Davies said Potter expressed strong opposition to going to trial and subjecting Lugo’s family to additional trauma.

Court documents show Potter was arrested at the scene and has been held in jail since that time as the case dragged on for more than four years since the January 2019 murder.  

Court records also show that Lugo and Potter met at the Black Whiskey, a bar on 14th Street, N.W.  where Lugo was a regular customer. Although some of Lugo’s family members and friends who spoke at the sentencing hearing said they considered the murder a hate crime, court records show police and prosecutors did not list the case as a hate crime.

“He was a beautiful gay man, and everyone loved him,” Hannah Donnelly, one of Lugo’s friends and co-workers said in presenting her victim’s impact presentation in the courtroom.

Another friend said in her impact statement that Lugo invited her to join him to watch D.C.’s Capital Pride parade. She and nearly all the others who presented their impact statements at the hearing were not gay or lesbian themselves but said Lugo was beloved because he always did all he could to help them and support them in their everyday lives.

“He was like a brother to me,” said Gregory Porter, one of Lugo’s friends who, along with his wife, presented their victim impact statements in the courtroom. “There was never a thought that he would no longer be a part of our life,” Porter told the judge. “We ask for equal justice. We ask the court to invoke the maximum possible sentence,” he said.

Victoria Lugo, Lugo’s mother, was the first of the family members and friends to deliver her victim’s impact statement. Looking directly at Potter, she told him there was nothing her son could have done to him to justify what Potter did.

“You have taken my child from me, Mr. Potter,” she said while crying. “My heart hurts,” she continued. “No mother should have to go through this.”

Potter, who was dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, accepted Judge Demeo’s invitation to speak before she handed down her sentence.

“I’d like to say I am truly very sorry,” Potter told the judge. “I accept the consequences of my action,” he said. “I feel I will spend the rest of my life having a positive impact on other people’s lives to make up for what I have done,” he said.

After listening to Potter, the presentations by Lugo’s family members and friends and hearing remarks from prosecutor Roman and defense attorney Davies, Judge Demeo said she would accept the plea agreement. She said the circumstances surrounding the case, including what she called the “brutal nature of the crime,” warranted that she issue a sentence representing the upper end of the plea agreement of 16 years’ incarceration and five years of supervised release.

She said she would order that the facility where Potter is incarcerated will provide him with mental health treatment.  

“There is no doubt that this was a horrific crime,” she said. “Vongell Lugo was shown by witnesses to be a wonderful soul,” she added.

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