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Judge challenges prosecutors for evidence in Michael Johnson murder trial

Judge challenges prosecutors for evidence in Michael Johnson murder trial
Michael Maurice Johnson, shown walking out of a downtown courthouse after a pretrial hearing last year, is being tried for a third time in the death of Phylicia Barnes. (Justin Fenton / Baltimore Sun)

A Baltimore judge repeatedly challenged prosecutors Thursday to show evidence that Michael Maurice Johnson murdered a North Carolina teenager in 2010 and dumped her body in the Susquehanna River.

The prosecutors faced pointed questions from Circuit Judge Charles Peters as he weighed whether they had enough evidence for Johnson’s third trial to proceed.

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“Is there any evidence of the defendant going at or near the Susquehanna River?” the judge asked.

“No,” said Michael Dunty, the prosecutor.

“How did the body get up there?” Peters asked.

“I don’t have an answer for the court,” Dunty said.

Johnson is being tried a third time for the killing of Phylicia Barnes. The 16-year-old honors student from Monroe, N.C., was visiting her half-sister in Northwest Baltimore in December 2010 when she vanished. Four months later, her body was found floating in the Susquehanna.

Johnson had dated Barnes’ sister, and he was the last person known to have seen the girl alive.

Johnson was convicted of second-degree murder at his first trial, but the verdict was overturned after the judge ruled that prosecutors had withheld information about a key witness.

During his second trial, the judge declared a mistrial after prosecutors played for jurors part of a tape that they were not supposed to hear. The judge later reversed the mistrial ruling and granted a motion for judgment of acquittal.

Prosecutors appealed the judge’s decision, and the state’s highest court ruled in their favor, sending Johnson back for a third trial.

On Thursday, four weeks into his third trial, Johnson’s attorneys asked the judge to throw out the case again for lack of evidence. Prosecutors responded during hours of arguments Thursday afternoon. They are scheduled to resume Friday morning.

Peters has not ruled on the request for acquittal, but he challenged the prosecutors to show what evidence supports their theory of the murder.

Prosecutors say Johnson strangled or suffocated Barnes, stuffed her body in a storage bin, then drove around for a place to dump her. They claim he managed a clever coverup, intentionally texting Barnes as a cover.

“You’re saying he was savvy enough to text her,” the judge asked, “and then argue later, ‘I didn’t know she was dead’?”

Prosecutors say Johnson developed an inappropriate relationship with her, escalating into her murder. A neighbor said he saw Johnson struggling to move a storage container out of his apartment that day. Prosecutors believe Barnes’ body was inside.

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Johnson’s attorneys say there’s no evidence to back the theory. They say Johnson took off work that day because he was moving out of the apartment he shared with Barnes’ older sister, and was moving belongings in the storage container. His cellphone tracked his movements and did not place him anywhere near the river, though it was also off and not charting his whereabouts for some time.

In testimony Monday, his defense attorneys brought out evidence that Wayne Jenkins and Sean Suiter had been among the Baltimore police officers who conducted surveillance on Johnson in January 2012. Jenkins has since pleaded guilty to carrying out brazen robberies under the guise of police work, while Suiter was fatally shot last fall one day before he was to testify before a federal grand jury pursuing additional charges against Jenkins related to an arrest the officers made in 2010.

There was no testimony that Jenkins or Suiter did anything improper while watching Johnson.

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