Maryland's highest court has ruled that the accused killer of Phylicia Barnes can be tried for a third time, saying a city judge who acquitted him "was totally without authority to act."
Michael M. Johnson, 33, has been free since January 2015, when Judge John Addison Howard ruled that prosecutors lacked evidence and dismissed second-degree murder charges.
But that ruling came after Howard had already declared a mistrial, and in a unanimous opinion issued Wednesday, the Court of Appeals found that Howard no longer had the ability to grant an acquittal.
Baltimore prosecutors have said they intend to try Johnson again for the 2010 killing of Barnes, a 16-year-old honor student from North Carolina who vanished while visiting her half-sister in Northwest Baltimore. The search drew national attention. Her body eventually was found floating in the Susquehanna River.
State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said Wednesday she was pleased by the ruling, but did not elaborate on the next steps in the case.
"This unanimous decision further validates our unwavering pursuit of justice on behalf of Phylicia Barnes" and her family, Mosby said in a statement.
Court of Appeals Judge Lynne A. Battaglia described the case as a "saga" in the court's written opinion.
Johnson was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder in 2013, but a judge overturned the conviction at sentencing after determining prosecutors had withheld evidence.
Neitehr Johnson nor the state Office of the Public Defender could be reached for comment.
Phylicia's father, informed of the decision Wednesday, let out screams of joy.
"I am so elated," Russell Barnes said. "The judge made an error by letting this predator out of jail. We're getting a new trial."
Johnson was the last person to see Barnes alive. He had dated her half-sister for years, but they were in the process of breaking up when the teenager went missing.
Johnson was charged a year after Barnes' body was found.
Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Goldberg has acknowledged that the evidence against Johnson is circumstantial. But she said his involvement in the killing was the only "logical conclusion."
Prosecutors say Johnson had developed an inappropriate relationship with the teen, 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 Barnes' body was inside.
But defense attorneys have said Johnson cooperated with police, and cellphone records that trace his movements did not show him anywhere near the Susquehanna River. They said prosecutors could not prove that a crime had been committed or, if one had been, in which state it occurred.
During Johnson's first trial, Judge Alfred Nance expressed "great concern" about the state's evidence. A jury found him not guilty of first-degree murder, but convicted him of second-degree murder.
At sentencing, however, Nance found prosecutors had failed to turn over information regarding a jailhouse informant who testified against Johnson, and ordered a new trial.
Johnson was tried again in late 2014. Prosecutors played a recording jurors were not supposed to hear, and Howard declared a mistrial.
At that point, jurors had heard only the state's side of the case. Still, five jurors interviewed by The Baltimore Sun said they would have voted to acquit Johnson.
As the case headed to re-trial, Howard reversed course in January 2015, ruling that prosecutors had "insufficient evidence" to try Johnson again.
He called the prosecution's case against Johnson "unarguably circumstantial." While their case was intriguing, he said, it contained "no direct evidence" linking him to Barnes' death.
"There was 'no smoking gun' in this case," Howard wrote.
Prosecutors, believing Howard had made an error, promptly re-indicted Johnson. Circuit Court Judge Timony Doory denied an arrest warrant sought by prosecutors, and Johnson was instead served with a summons and not detained. The case was referred back to Howard, who dismissed the indictment.
A three-judge panel of the Court of Special Appeals found last week that Howard had erred and ordered a new trial for Johnson. Johnson appealed the case to the state's highest court, which heard arguments in December.
Howard retired last year.