Trial in Phylicia Barnes case set to start

Michael Maurice Johnson is scheduled to stand trial starting Tuesday in the death of North Carolina teenager Phylicia Barnes, with court proceedings that could include prosecutors playing a sex video and defense attorneys revealing details from an internal affairs investigation of the lead detective in the case.

Barnes, 16, disappeared in late December 2010 while visiting her half-sister Deena Barnes in Baltimore. Her body was found four months later floating naked in the Susquehanna River.

The media attention Barnes' case received had the paradoxical effect of stoking public debate about missing minority children typically receiving less attention than others. The case also sparked a push for new laws to help public agencies track missing children.

Now, Russell Barnes, Phylicia's father, said that her family is girding for the trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

"We're going to make sure we do all we can do to get justice for Phylicia," he said. "I've been in contact with everybody; I haven't taken my fingers off anything."

Johnson, 28, was indicted on a single first-degree murder count in April 2012. Prosecutors said at a bail hearing that he asphyxiated Barnes in Deena Barnes' apartment and moved her body in a 35-gallon plastic tub. Johnson has maintained his innocence.

Since that hearing, prosecutors have been tight-lipped about the case. A gag order has been issued, so the lawyers involved cannot comment.

Several twists and turns are possible at trial, including more details about accusations that the lead detective went to improper lengths when his own daughter went missing, a video that prosecutors say depicts Barnes, Johnson and two other people engaged in "sexual relations," and a possible defense witness who allegedly saw Barnes in another county after she had been reported missing.

A judge gave the go-ahead earlier this month for prosecutors to show the sex video but said it must be played in open court. It is not clear how prosecutors will use the video in the case.

Barnes' mother, Janice Mustafa, had accused Deena Barnes of condoning alcohol use and allowing men to drop by her apartment. And prosecutors said at the bail hearing last year that Barnes told a relative Johnson made her feel "uncomfortable."

Don Rondeau, a private security contractor who established a close relationship with the Barnes family and helped in the search for Phylicia, said he thinks the trial will show the risks of a teenager's becoming entangled in adult matters.

"Do we want minor children socializing with adults in the way that has been reported?" he asked. "I think the answer is no."

Johnson, who had dated Deena Barnes for almost 10 years, has denied any involvement in Barnes' death. Court filings indicate that his lawyers will call as a witness Robert Hickman Fields, who they say saw Barnes in Cecil County after she was reported missing, and after prosecutors think Johnson had killed her.

Defense lawyers also filed a separate motion attacking the credibility of Daniel Nicholson IV, the lead detective in the case. The detective allegedly searched a Northeast Baltimore home looking for his daughter, and the occupants there reported they were assaulted.

He was suspended from the department in the days before Johnson's indictment, and Johnson's team claims Nicholson could have used similar inappropriate tactics in the hunt for Barnes. Nicholson is still suspended from the department and has not been charged. His attorney has said he did nothing wrong.

Before any of the evidence is even aired, though, prosecutors and defense attorneys will have to settle on a jury. That could take time because of the media attention, according to Andrew I. Alperstein, a former Baltimore County prosecutor now in private practice.

"The lawyers and the court will go through a process to weed out people who've been exposed to it or heard about it," he said.

Gov. Martin O'Malley signed a bill named after Phylicia Barnes into law in the weeks after Johnson's arrest, requiring state authorities to publish lists of missing children and annual statistics.

An estimated 13,500 children are reported missing on average each year in Maryland, according to state police. In that context, the trial is important, Rondeau said, but there is more work to be done.

"It's a milestone, but it's certainly not a period at the end of the sentence about missing children," he said.



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