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Prosecution rests its case in Phylicia Barnes trial

After presenting two weeks of testimony, Baltimore prosecutors rested their case Friday in the retrial of Michael Maurice Johnson for the killing of 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes.

Friday's testimony centered on wiretapped phone calls and text messages that were gathered by Maryland State Police in October and November 2011, as the case was being taken to the Harford County grand jury. Sgt. David Feltman testified that police initiated those proceedings and undertook other efforts in hopes of generating discussion of the case by Johnson while police were listening.

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In the discussions, Johnson can be heard contemplating the possible outcomes but stops short of implicating himself for the crime. He also talks about fleeing the country.

His defense attorneys have said Johnson knew he was being targeted by authorities, and the conversations reflect the concerns of someone in that situation and in some cases are taken out of context.

Prosecutors had a state trooper read a text message from Johnson to his girlfriend that read, "We will say whatever we have to to win this case."

In cross examination, defense attorney Katy O'Donnell asked the trooper to continue reading the messages that followed. "It's a good chance it will be a trial ... When [only] one side of the story is being told, you're" in trouble, Johnson's messages continued.

On a recorded telephone call, a relative says he was asked questions by investigators about Johnson's breakup with Phylicia's older sister. "So that's supposed to be my motive? Our breakup?" Johnson can be heard saying.

In another conversation, Johnson discusses with his brother a police request to take his DNA. Johnson says that police "need something more solid to make it look like it's" him. He tells his brother that he's fearful his DNA could be under Phylicia's fingers from "play-fighting" a day before her disappearance.

"I can't tell you it wouldn't be there," Johnson says in the call.

Phylicia, a high school student in Monroe, N.C., was visiting her older half-sisters in December 2010 when she disappeared. Her body was found in the Susquehanna River four months later.

Johnson, the last known person to see her alive, was charged with the killing in April 2012, and in 2013 was acquitted of first-degree murder but convicted of second-degree murder. Judge Alfred Nance later ordered a retrial, saying prosecutors had withheld information about a supposed eyewitness who said he saw Johnson with Phylicia's body.

At the second trial, prosecutors did not call that witness. The case largely relies on the account from Johnson's neighbor, who testified that on the day Phylicia went missing, Johnson was struggling to move a plastic storage container from the apartment. Prosecutors believe Phylicia's body was inside.

Prosecutors were also able to present evidence from Johnson's phone showing web searches for forensic testing and DNA, and books about high-profile killings, as well as a video of Johnson having sex with a woman a police detective described as a prostitute. That evidence had not been presented at the previous trial, and Johnson's previous attorneys said Thursday that the information was "extremely prejudicial."

Johnson's current defense team will be able to call witnesses starting Monday.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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