By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun
9:03 PM EST, January 28, 2013
The older sister of Phylicia Barnes tearfully said Monday she had allowed her teenage sister to drift too close to the man now accused of murdering her, testifying in the trial of Michael Maurice Johnson that the then-26-year-old's unnerving conduct one summer night was the final blow to their relationship.
Prosecutors played for the jurors a 16-minute video they said depicted Deena Barnes and Johnson, along with Phylicia and Johnson's younger brother Glenton Michael Johnson kissing and "nakedly" touching after leaving a June 2010 party on a dare that they go streaking together.
Barnes dabbed her eyes with a tissue, acknowledging that her teenage sister, on that night and others, became intoxicated, smoked marijuana and spent the night in the same room with boys.
"What were you thinking at the time?" asked Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Goldberg.
"I wasn't," said Barnes, her voice lowered and a swoop of hair covering her right eye.
Barnes said Johnson once made a pass at her 16-year-old sister. She described trouble reaching him on the day Phylicia went missing, but was not asked for any insight into how Phylicia died. The prosecution has described an inappropriate relationship between Johnson and Phylicia but has not offered a motive.
Johnson is facing one count of first-degree murder in the death of Phylicia, who, while visiting from North Carolina, vanished from her sister's Northwest Baltimore apartment on Dec. 28, 2010. Johnson was the last person known to have seen her alive. Her nude body was found four months later in the Susquehanna River.
The defense challenged Deena Barnes' story, questioning her actions after realizing her sister was missing and raising doubts about whether she had a reason to be upset with Phylicia. Ivan Bates, one of four attorneys representing Johnson, noted that Barnes told police investigators that Johnson was never violent during their relationship, and that she had never had any qualms about Phylicia being around him.
They also sought to paint Phylicia not as an innocent teenager who wouldn't have left her sister's apartment on her own, but as a rebellious girl who was allowed to act as an adult when in Baltimore and who befriended strangers on social media.
Prosecutors have described the nude romp on the night of June 13, 2010, as a turning point, leading to 1,300 text messages exchanged between Johnson and Phylicia.
Circuit Court Judge Alfred Nance earlier denied a request by prosecutors to close the courtroom when playing the tape for jurors, but it was played with the television screen turned away from spectators in the courtroom. Later, the tape was sealed.
Voices could be heard giggling and joking, followed by periods of silence during which kissing noises were audible. At one point, the man filming on Deena Barnes' cell phone remarks that he's been "left out," and Barnes later testified that Phylicia is shown on the tape playfully grabbing Johnson's penis. Prosecutors said in opening statements that Johnson is seen looking at Phylicia while kissing Deena.
Barnes testified that she later saw Phylicia and Michael Johnson together in her apartment's bathroom, with Johnson tending to the girl's knee. From the bedroom, Barnes said, she saw Johnson reach for the girl's genitals. She laughed and pushed his hand away, said Barnes, who testified that she was disturbed by the interaction and confronted Johnson about it.
"I asked him, did he just try to touch my sister. He said no," Barnes testified. She asked him again, then asked Phylicia about it.
Barnes said she considered calling their father, but worried that he might forbid his daughters to spend time together.
"I was scared," she testified. "Scared of not being able to see Phylicia anymore. … I thought she wouldn't be able to come around anymore."
Before the day's proceedings, the Barnes family formed a prayer circle with Deena.
Phylicia was raised with her mother in North Carolina, where she attended private school, was a student-athlete and achieved honor roll. She was set to graduate a year early. She did not know her sisters beyond an introduction when she was seven years old, at a family reunion.
But Phylicia reached out to her adult siblings in Baltimore over Facebook in 2009, forging a close relationship with them and, with her mother's blessing, began making trips to visit. She took a particular shine to Deena, and was nicknamed "Little Deens."
"She was a beautiful person — bubbly, funny, smart, loving and caring," Barnes testified. Despite their 11-year age difference, she described Phylicia as "my best friend."
That friendship developed amid Barnes' troubled relationship with Johnson, her live-in boyfriend, whom she had been dating for 10 years. Their relationship was "rocky," and Barnes said she lost several friends because they didn't approve.
She and Johnson were effectively separated by 2010, though they continued to live together and even moved into a new apartment in late June. After the trip during which the video was filmed, Phylicia returned to Baltimore just weeks later around the Fourth of July. She had ditched a college visit in southern Virginia, saying falsely that her mother had given her approval.
She and Deena got tattoos on their legs; Barnes' was a honey drop. Phylicia got a rose tattoo — which later would be important in identifying her decomposing body.
Phylicia returned again during Christmas break. Johnson no longer lived in the apartment after Barnes asked him to move out.
Barnes testified Monday that on Dec. 28, 2010, Michael Johnson sent her a text message asking if they could get back together. "It's not too late to work things out," it read. Barnes said she did not respond.
Barnes laid out the following sequence of events for the rest of the day:
•She left for work in the morning, with Johnson's younger brother Dylane Davis asleep in her bed with Phylicia. Davis testified last week that Johnson showed up at the apartment and took him back to his house because Davis didn't have their parents' permission to be there.
•Barnes texted Phylicia from work, the last message coming at 12:23 p.m., when they talked about getting Phylicia's hair done. Around the same time, Barnes was on the phone with Johnson. At 12:30 p.m., a message posted to Phylicia's Facebook page said she was hungry.
•Later, Johnson told Barnes that "little sis" had awoken and asked if Dylane could come back over. Davis testified last week that he returned to an empty apartment around 1 or 2 p.m.. Loud music was playing, something the group did to ward off intruders if someone without a key was going to leave the door unlocked behind them.
•In the afternoon, Barnes tried to call Johnson, whose phone was off, and got his voice mail. He later texted that his phone died and that Phylicia had fallen asleep again. "LOL," the message reads.
•At 3:30 p.m., he phoned Barnes — in a call she described as "random" — and said he didn't feel like going to work that day. Johnson was to have worked a 3-to-11-p.m. shift.
•Sometime around 5 p.m., he texted Barnes that "sis is up and active."
When Barnes returned home from work around 6 p.m., Phylicia was gone, so she called several people, including Johnson. He didn't pick up, but texted that his phone was dying and that he was busy moving things. She asked him when he last saw Phylicia, and he eventually responded around 8 p.m., saying that he saw her at 1:30 p.m.
"Is everything OK?" he asked. When Barnes said she was going to call police, he replied, "Keep me informed."
Missing from the apartment were Phylicia's jacket, cell phone and purse, as well as slippers Barnes had purchased for her. A stash of money behind a dresser was still there.
Barnes testified that Johnson came over to the apartment at 2 a.m. on Dec. 29. She described him as "nonchalant," but also "nervous," saying that he was concerned about the implications of being the last person to see her alive. He stayed till dawn, returned the next night and slept over.
Bates, the defense attorney, said Barnes called the police before conducting her own search, didn't check Phylicia's Facebook page, and delayed telling Phylicia's mother what was happening. Johnson didn't help with further search efforts, though he was instructed to stay away because emotions were running high, according to testimony.
As the trial continues, it's still unclear whether the prosecution will be allowed to use a large plastic container like one that Johnson allegedly was seen struggling to move out of the apartment. There's been conflicting testimony about whether the container was from the apartment and how large it was.
Prosecutors have said they want to show that someone of Phylicia's size could fit inside a tub they believe to have been used that day — an explanation for why various cameras around Deena's apartment never show Phylicia leaving.
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