The defense attorney for 28-year-old Michael Johnson, charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Phylicia Barnes, told reporters on Thursday that his client had been struck and kicked during his arrest. He disputed a statement from the city's top prosecutor that the arrest went down "without incident."
But trying to track down what actually happened has been a frustrating ordeal, not just on the allegations of mistreatment, but the aura of secrecy surrounding this high-profile case. Read full coverage of arrest and case here.
Numerous law enforcement offcials are privately upset with Thursday's news conference in which State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein spoke -- but revealed precious little information -- and didn't allow city or state police commanders to go to the podium.
He thanked state police for their help, and singled out the state's attorney for Harford County, bud didn't mention city police homicide detectives, who were part of the case from when Phylicia vanished on in December 2010 and were part of one of the most extensive and complex missing person's cases in department history.
Johnson was charged under a grand jury indictment, which is a perfectly acceptable but unusual way to proceed in Maryland. Typically, suspects are charged by police in what are called charging documents -- judicial justification to prove to a judge or court commissioner that there is probable cause for an arrest. Then, prosecutors seek an indictment, moving the case from District to Circuit Court. Getting the indictment first allows prosecutors to bypass the first part, and the case is shrouded in secrecy.
That will change over the course of the next few weeks and months, as the court file fills with discovery, the suspect gets a bail hearing and documents and details start to tumble out. But for now, even the most basic of details -- how Phylicia was killed and where, remain a closely guarded secret.
The indictment itself remains sealed -- the only documents revealed thus far is the arrest warrant, which the suspect's defense attorney handed out to reporters. That documents provides no new information.
Even the location of Johnson's arrest has not been made public. Police decline to comment further because the case is now in the hands of the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office. But Johnson's lawyer, Russell Neverdon, complained on Friday that his client had been roughed up during the arrest.
The lawyer said Johnson was arrested outside his girlfriend's apartment as he got into his vehicle to drive to work. He said plainclothes officers who did not identify themselves yanked open his door and he got out, but thinking he was being carjacked, turned to walk away.
“He was sucker-punched,” Neverdon said, adding that other officers from the Baltimore Police Department’s Warrant Apprehension Task Force struck him until he fell to the ground “in a ball,” where he alleged his client was “kicked” until stood up and handcuffed.
Neverdon said he met with Johnson for 20 minutes on Thursday at the city detention center and reported that his client had a cut on his right eye lid, another cut under the eye and that his right eye has begun to swell shut. He said he had dried blood streaked across a cheek and blotter “splattered” on his shirt.
Baltimore police released Johnson’s booking photo Thursday afternoon. It shows a cut and some scars under his right eye, which appeared to swell a bit.
Johnson was arrested by members of the Baltimore Police Department's Warrant Apprehension Task Force, which is made up of officers from several different departments, including the Maryland State Police and the U.S. Marshal's Office, a federal agency. Their job is to hunt fugitives and people wanted on warrants.
Baltimore Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi referred questions about the arrest to the U.S. Marshal's Office in Baltimore. A spokesman, David Lutz, was not available and calls to the Washington headquarters went nowhere.
Lutz called me this morning but said he had no statement to make and referred all inquiries back to city police and the report on Johnson's arrest. Guglielmi then went on the record to defend the circumstances of the arrest.
Guglielmi said officers boxed in Johnson's Audi and as they approached the spokesman said the suspect "tried to run." A deputy U.S. Marshal tackled him, Guglielmi said, and Johnson "hit his face on the ground."
A use of force report was written on the incident. Whether Johnson was roughed up or legitimately tackled as he tried to escape can be argued by prosecutors and defense attorneys. But the arrest hardly went down "without incident," as the city's chief prosecutor said, and saying that in light of this new information only gives the defense attorney a reason to shout.
And the public, now two days after an arrest in a significant case, are still in the dark about some of the most basic details.