12:34 PM EDT, April 26, 2012
The arrest late Wednesday of a suspect in the killing of North Carolina teen Phylicia Barnes is a vindication of the tremendous effort and resources the Baltimore Police Department poured into the case after the 16-year-old disappeared from her older sister's Northwest Baltimore apartment in late 2010. But coming as it does amid a probe into the activities of the lead investigator in the case after his own daughter disappeared this month, the arrest also highlights lingering questions about discipline within the department and raises concern about whether officers' misconduct could jeopardize this or other cases.
Ms. Barnes' disappearance struck a chord in Baltimore and in North Carolina. Family, friends and complete strangers held rallies and vigils in both states in the weeks and months after she went missing. The case got a small amount of national attention, but it did not — to the consternation of many involved, including the police — result in the wall-to-wall coverage cable news occasionally bestows on those who go missing. Many were unable to escape the conclusion that things might have been different if she had been white and wealthy, like Natalee Holloway, who disappeared on a Caribbean vacation in 2005. Ms. Barnes was black, and despite her good grades, strong family and lack of any trouble in her past, she received little notice in the national media. Whether race was the reason or not, the lack of coverage was a shame because it might have helped authorities bring the investigation to a close sooner.
Baltimore police, however, clearly took the disappearance seriously. The department at one point had assigned 100 detectives to the case, and it conducted searches of area parks in conjunction with thousands of volunteers from other law enforcement agencies and the public. The fact that they made an arrest in the case nearly a year and a half after Ms. Barnes' disappearance is proof that they never gave up.
What's troubling, though, is the possibility that the department's timetable for moving in on Michael Johnson, Ms. Barnes' sister's ex-boyfriend, who has been arrested in the case, could have been affected by the widening probe into the conduct of the officer who led the investigation in the Barnes case. Mr. Johnson's attorney, Russell Neverdon, has quickly focused on questions about Detective Daniel T. Nicholson IV's suspension amid allegations that he misused his police powers to search for his own daughter, who briefly went missing last week. Authorities are looking into whether Mr. Nicholson conducted an unauthorized search of an apartment and whether others helped him to improperly use phone tracking technology to find his daughter.
If there is a connection between the timing of Mr. Johnson's arrest and the investigation into Mr. Nicholson, that's a real problem. Police have long focused on Mr. Johnson in the Barnes case, but they had not moved forward with an arrest, despite strong public pressure to do so. It would be terrible if, after all these months, authorities took action without having all the evidence they will eventually need.
But even if the two events are a coincidence, Mr. Nicholson's alleged misconduct in the investigation of his own daughter's disappearance could nonetheless present an obstacle for prosecutors in the Barnes case. Mr. Neverdon is already suggesting that if Mr. Nicholson crossed the line in one case, he might have done so in others. "How far does this taint go?" he asked this morning, and will likely ask again if his client appears in front of a jury.
Baltimore prosecutors have too often had trouble convincing juries that city police were trustworthy, and this won't help. Stacked on top of the recent convictions of several officers in a towing kickback scheme, the guilty plea of an officer who ran a drug ring while on duty — sometimes out of the Northwestern District parking lot — and the conviction of another officer who shot an unarmed Marine veteran in a drunken, off-duty confrontation, it may not take much for Mr. Neverdon to sow doubts. Phylicia Barnes' family deserves justice in this case. It would be simply tragic if a police officer's panic over his own missing daughter prevented them from getting it.
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