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New e-mails, texts introduced in Phylicia Barnes trial

A member of the Guardian Angels holds down a flyer during the search for Phylicia Barnes in 2011.
A member of the Guardian Angels holds down a flyer during the search for Phylicia Barnes in 2011. (Jed Kirschbaum / Baltimore Sun)

In days and weeks before Phylicia Barnes went missing, the 10-year relationship between her older sister and the man now accused of killing the 16-year-old was, after several fits and starts, finally deteriorating.

"I love you in more ways than any man who walks the Earth," Michael Maurice Johnson told Phylicia's sister, Deena Barnes in a Dec. 15, 2010 e-mail read to jurors Wednesday.

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But Johnson said he was coming to realization that Deena was finally moving on. Because they were still on a lease, they continued to spend considerable time together and remained in regular communication, the messages show. Their messages were cordial, and sometimes playful. 

On Dec. 28 - the morning Phylicia disappeared - Johnson made his last appeal to Deena via text message.

"It ain't too late babe. We can still turn this around like Bonnie and Clyde," he said in one message. "As long as I put my heart and feelings on the table, I can sleep knowing I tried," the message concludes.

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Later, he said he had visited their apartment to pick up some things and texted: "All right babes. Sis is up and active, and sorry about that text. That was the last one. I hope I didn't ruin your day."

Prosecutors say that text is the last acknowledgment from anyone of Phylicia being seen alive, and believe Johnson was covering his tracks. They contend that Johnson had developed a questionable relationship with Phylicia, citing 1,300 text messages exchanged between them in the months before she went missing. The content of those messages has not been disclosed, but Johnson's attorneys say they contain nothing inappropriate.

The messages between Deena Barnes and Johnson, drawn out by Johnson's attorneys on cross-examination of Deena Barnes, add a fuller picture to Johnson's mindset in the time leading up to Phylicia's disappearance, but they appear to fall short of showing a motive for the teenage girl's murder.

Phylicia's body was found months later floating in the Susquehanna River. Authorities believe she had been strangled.

Johnson was acquitted of first-degree murder in February 2012 but convicted of second-degree murder. At his sentencing, however, the judge overseeing the case overturned the conviction. He said prosecutors had withheld evidence raising questions about an alleged eyewitness, who said Johnson had shown him Phylicia's body and confessed that he strangled her after raping her.

With that witness' credibility in doubt, prosecutors have opted against calling him to testify at Johnson's retrial and are going with a case described by the previous judge as "circumstantial."

In addition to the volume of text messages, prosecutors say Johnson was seen struggling to move a plastic storage container from the apartment. They believe Barnes' body was inside. He later called out of work, and his cell phone was off for periods of time.

Defense attorney Kaye Beehler asked Deena questions about Phylicia being naive. Deena recounted an incident when Phylicia was walking Deena's dog, and a stranger asked to use her phone. Deena said she told Phylicia not to lend her phone to people she didn't know, and said she also once counseled her not to accept friend request from strangers on Facebook.

After Phylicia was determined to be missing, Deena sent text messages to Johnson asking when he last saw her.

"1:30. Is everything OK?" he responded.

When the family later brainstormed a list of people who had last seen Phylicia, Johnson helped compile it. But police would eventually tell the family to stop communicating with him.

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