19-year-old sentenced to 26 years for murder at Tacoma birthday party

A Tacoma teenager who took a gun to a fistfight and used it to kill another teen received a high-end prison sentence Friday.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Rosanne Buckner sentenced Henry Nhem to 26 years, two months in prison for the November 2008 death of Phillip Johnson.

Buckner also sentenced Pitra Oeung, a reported leader of Nhem’s gang, to nine years, six months in prison for his role in Johnson’s death.

Johnson, 18, died after being shot outside the South End Community Center, where he’d been chaperoning a “sweet 16” birthday party for a neighborhood girl.

Prosecutors alleged Nhem, 19, and other members of his street gang went to the center that evening to fight members of a rival gang who were attending the party. Some of Nhem’s and Oeung’s friends apparently were asked to leave the function, generating ill will.

Oeung reportedly urged his compatriots to fight and antagonized his rivals by spitting at them.

At one point, Nhem pulled out a pistol and fired into the crowd, hitting Johnson. Deputy prosecutor Gregory Greer said Johnson, who was not a gang member, had just stepped outside to see what was going on when he was hit.

Nhem originally was charged with first-degree murder. He pleaded guilty last week to second-degree murder and unlawfully possessing a gun. Oeung, originally charged with first-degree murder, pleaded guilty last month to first-degree manslaughter.

Greer told the judge Nhem’s crimes “cry out for a high-end sentence.”

“Phillip Johnson, who had his whole life ahead of him, is dead,” the deputy prosecutor said. “This kind of crime is beyond comprehension.”

Johnson’s death devastated his loved ones, a family spokeswoman told the judge.

“Phillip’s mother will not be able to visit him anymore,” Rose Sutton said. “She’ll go over to a grave, but she won’t be able to visit with him.”

Defense attorney Michael Clark said Nhem deserved a midrange sentence of 22 years. Nhem fired when he thought his younger brother, who was with him that night, was in danger, Clark said.

Nhem and Oeung apologized to Johnson’s family – Nhem in his own words and Oeung through a statement read by his attorney, Leslie Tolzin.

“I know the suffering for Mr. Johnson’s family will never end,” Oeung said.

“I know anything I do or say can’t bring him back,” Nhem said. “I just want to say I’m deeply sorry.”

Buckner credited Nhem for taking responsibility for his crimes by pleading guilty but said he should have known better than take a gun to a fistfight.

“Since you chose to use that gun, I’m sentencing you to the maximum,” the judge said.