Baltimore prosecutors said Friday that a sexually charged video depicting teenager Phylicia Barnes and the man accused of killing her shows a turning point in the relationship that ultimately led to her death.
Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Goldberg also said in opening statements that a witness will testify that defendant Michael Maurice Johnson showed him Barnes' body after she died, in a plea for help. Defense lawyers said that witness is unreliable and shows that the state has a weak case.
Barnes had connected over social media with her long-lost half sisters and they quickly became close, Goldberg said. But one of those sisters, Deena Barnes, saw her more as an adult girlfriend than a little sister and, during her trips from her home in North Carolina to Baltimore, allowed her to drink alcohol.
On one such night, Phylicia Barnes and Johnson, Deena Barnes' boyfriend of 10 years, took off their clothes and streaked around an apartment complex. Then the three of them, along with two of Johnson's brothers, went to a nearby school, where they engaged in "naked touching and kissing," Goldberg said. It was all recorded on video.
Goldberg said the video, which prosecutors plan to play for the jury during the trial, shows Johnson touching Deena — but as he does so, he is looking at Phylicia.
"That night was a changing point," Goldberg said. "The defendant was now interested in [Deena's] sister."
Defense attorney Russell Neverdon said that prosecutors have made a rush to judgment, pinning the crime on Johnson because he was the last to see Phylicia Barnes alive — in part, they have argued in pretrial motions, because of the personal troubles of the lead detective in the case.
"This case is not about sex, lies and videotape," Neverdon said.
Johnson was charged in April 2012 — about 16 months after Barnes went missing from her sister's Northwest Baltimore apartment on Dec. 28, 2011, and a year after her nude body was found floating in the Susquehanna River. Since then, the case has appeared to largely revolve around a witness' contention that Johnson was seen struggling to move a 35-gallon plastic container that investigators believe contained Barnes' body.
But prosecutors for the first time revealed that a man will testify that he saw Phylicia's body inside the apartment after being called by Johnson, who asked him for help. Goldberg said the man — whom she identified as James McCray, a convicted criminal being held at the Charles County Detention Center — came forward with the information after Johnson's arrest.
Neverdon dismissed McCray as a "jailhouse snitch" who "can't tell Michael Johnson from Michael Jordan."
Neverdon said Johnson was seen moving items out of the apartment because, with their relationship coming to an end, he was instructed by Deena Barnes to move out of the apartment by the end of the year. They say investigators found no DNA evidence and that assigning the cause of death to asphyxiation is an assumption because there were no injuries to the body.
Johnson faces one count of first-degree murder. He appeared in court dressed in a black suit, and is being represented by four defense attorneys — Neverdon, Ivan Bates, Tony Garcia and Mary Lloyd. Circuit Judge Alfred Nance's courtroom was packed with observers, including Phylicia Barnes' mother, Janice Mustafa, who sat next to an attorney she has hired for the proceedings.
Prosecutors described Phylicia Barnes as a bright girl who spent lots of time on her cellphone and social media sites, and forged a tight bond with Deena Barnes and another half sister, Kelly. When she first visited Baltimore, Phylicia stayed with Kelly, who lived alone. But on subsequent trips, she began staying with Deena, who lived with Johnson and one of Johnson's cousins.
Kelly and her brother, Bryan Barnes, said they did not know that Deena allowed Phylicia to drink alcohol.
"Deena Barnes made horrible mistakes in the supervision of her sister," Goldberg said. "While at times she was very protective, other times she was far too permissive."
After the sexual video was filmed on June 13, 2010, Goldberg said, Johnson began interacting with Phylicia Barnes with increasing frequency. They exchanged 20 text messages during the first two weeks of June and would trade more than 1,300 messages over the next six months.
Goldberg told jurors: "1,300 messages between a 28-year-old man and a 16-year-old girl."
Neverdon countered that the jury will see the messages and that none of them is explicit or inappropriate. "This is about quantity, not quality," Neverdon said.
Dylane Davis, a younger brother of Johnson's who said he slept in the same bed as Deena and Phylicia the night before the teen went missing, testified he returned to the apartment to find the door unlocked and music blaring — something they did when leaving the apartment unattended and with the door unlocked, to discourage would-be burglars. He testified that he thought nothing of it.
Prosecutors acknowledged that they don't know how Johnson might have transported her body to the river 40 miles east of Baltimore where it was found, But they say he acted erratically that day, not going into work and purchasing a plastic tub from a Walmart that they believe he used to move the body.
His cellphone wasn't used in the period during which investigators believe Barnes was killed, and prosecutors said his phone was later traced to a spot near Patapsco Valley State Park — an area searched extensively at one point by police and volunteers.
When relatives realized Barnes was missing, they gathered at the Northwest Baltimore apartment to brainstorm ideas. Johnson was there, and Bryan Barnes testified Friday that his eyes were bloodshot and he spoke little. He didn't participate in future search efforts, though witnesses said he was asked to stay away.
In those first hours, the family was hopeful the girl would return. "We sat up and waited, hoping she would come through the door," Kelly Barnes testified.