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Jurors begin deliberating in Phylicia Barnes murder trial

Justice SystemHomicidePhylicia BarnesJames Lee

Lawyers on both sides of the Phylicia Barnes murder trial acknowledged the circumstantial evidence against Michael Maurice Johnson in closing arguments Monday. But while defense attorneys described flaws and inconsistencies, prosecutors said the facts point to Johnson as the only reasonable suspect.

"It's not one thing," Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Goldberg told jurors. "It's everything."

Jurors began deliberating on those details in the 10th day of the trial, despite a second attempt from defense attorneys to get an early acquittal. Judge Alfred Nance denied the request even though he said from the bench Friday that prosecutors' circumstantial theory gave him "great concern."

The case was placed in jurors' hands after nearly three hours of closing statements that touched on the broad array of evidence — including phone records and tracking and key testimony from a petty thief who came forward after Johnson's indictment to say he advised the defendant on how to dispose of the body.

Prosecutors also gave jurors more to consider when they added a second-degree murder charge to the first-degree charge already pending against Johnson.

The case seeks to resolve what happened when 16-year-old Barnes disappeared two years ago while visiting from North Carolina. Prosecutors have presented a narrative in which Johnson, who had been dating Barnes' older half sister for a decade, became enamored with Barnes after both participated in a sexually charged cellphone video played in court.

A neighbor testified that he saw Johnson struggling to carry a plastic storage container from the apartment where Barnes was staying on the day she disappeared. While he was in the process of moving out of the apartment, prosecutors argue he killed her there and removed the body inside the container. Barnes' body was found four months later in the Susquehanna River.

Defense lawyers offered a single witness Monday morning — Jeffrey Stillman, a co-worker of Johnson's at a roof shingle manufacturing company. Stillman said Johnson was "a good worker" and that it didn't strike him as odd when Johnson called out sick Dec. 28, 2010, the day Barnes disappeared.

That was in contrast to the more than two dozen witnesses prosecutors called over the course of the trial before resting their case Friday.

But most of the day was spent in closing statements that focused largely on whether the disparate pieces of evidence supported prosecutors' theory.

Defense lawyers focused criticism on James McCray's testimony that he advised Johnson about what to do with Barnes' body. That evidence is crucial because the prosecution has attempted to use it to link Johnson to the crime.

McCray, also known as James Lee, said Johnson told him he raped Barnes and strangled her after she wouldn't stop crying. But Johnson's lawyers attacked McCray for using multiple names, having a criminal history and incorrectly testifying what floor the apartment was on and what day the crime occurred.

McCray's testimony, they said, is the only new piece of evidence introduced in the case since a Harford County grand jury that convened in late 2011 disbanded without charging Johnson.

Johnson's attorneys also cast doubt on the time span during which Johnson would have had to kill Barnes, consult with McCray and move the body — a window of about 38 minutes.

"It doesn't make sense because it's not possible," defense attorney Tony Garcia said.

But prosecutors countered that McCray had information — about the neighborhood where the alleged crime took place and about Johnson's relationship with Barnes — that he would not have been able to provide if he was making up the story.

"There is only one person in this investigation that all of the facts and circumstances point to," assistant state's attorney Tonya LaPolla said. "There's only one logical conclusion."

Jurors were set to resume deliberations at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Nance gave the jurors, six men and six women who were mostly in purple garb Friday, the option for an early lunch Tuesday to catch the Ravens' Super Bowl victory parade. They declined.

Late Monday, they requested markers and a television. Videos played at the trial included the sexually charged tape and surveillance of Johnson buying a plastic tub at Walmart.

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Justice SystemHomicidePhylicia BarnesJames Lee
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