Judge to decide fate of man charged with killing Phylicia Barnes at his third trial

More than seven years after North Carolina teenager Phylicia Barnes went missing, a third trial is set to begin Monday for her accused killer.

The man accused of killing Phylicia Barnes has chosen to have a judge decide his fate for his third trial.

Michael Maurice Johnson, 34, waived his right to a jury trial on second-degree murder charges in the death of Barnes, the North Carolina teen who went missing from Baltimore during a visit in 2010.


Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Charles Peters will hear the case and decide whether Johnson is innocent or guilty.

Johnson has been convicted by a jury and acquitted by a judge. Both verdicts have been overturned.

Johnson sought to have the case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court declined last year.

The new prosecution team said Monday they might call as a witness James McCray, who testified at the first trial that he saw Barnes' body after Johnson asked him to help in disposing it. His was the only testimony that linked Johnson directly to a murder scene. The defense questioned McCray's credibility, deriding him at trial as a "jailhouse snitch,” and questions about his credibility led to the conviction being overturned.

McCray was not called at the second trial. Prosecutors say they might call him again, but they have not been able to locate him since October.

Defense attorneys said the uncertainty was hurting their ability to craft a defense. McCray has made allegations not corroborated by any other evidence, and without his testimony that case is circumstantial.

“We don’t know what it is we’re supposed to be countering,” assistant public defender Katy O’Donnell said.

Barnes, an honors student from Monroe, N.C., was visiting her half-sisters in Northwest Baltimore on winter break in December 2010 when she vanished. Authorities organized massive searches. Her body was found floating in the Susquehanna River in April 2011.

Johnson, who had dated Barnes’ sister, was the last person known to have seen Barnes alive. Prosecutors said Johnson had developed a relationship with Barnes and called in sick from work the day she went missing. Witnesses said they saw Johnson struggling to move a plastic container out of his ex-girlfriend's apartment that day. Authorities believe it contained Barnes' body.

At Johnson’s first trial, an inmate witness said Johnson had confessed to him, and he was convicted. But at his sentencing hearing, Judge Alfred Nance found prosecutors had withheld information about the witness, and reversed the verdict.

At his second trial, prosecutors played a recording that jurors were not supposed to hear, and Judge John Addison Howard declared a mistrial. Howard then reversed the mistrial ruling and dismissed the charges, saying prosecutors had insufficient evidence.

Prosecutors said Howard had made an error and promptly re-indicted Johnson. But Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory denied an arrest warrant sought by prosecutors. Johnson was served with a summons and not detained. The case was sent back to Howard, who dismissed the new indictment. Then the state Court of Appeals — Maryland’s highest court — reinstated the charges in April.

Johnson has been free since the acquittal in early 2015.