A Baltimore judge has acquitted the man accused of killing 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes in 2010, bringing an end to a high-profile case that spanned three trials.
Circuit Judge Charles J. Peters said the state's circumstantial case against Michael Maurice Johnson, the last person known to have seen the North Carolina honors student alive, came up short, and that the state had failed to establish a motive.
"The bottom line is that there are far, far too many questions left unanswered … for any fact-finder to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," Peters said in his ruling.
Johnson, 34, spent about three years in jail, and at his first trial in 2013 was convicted by a jury. That verdict was overturned, and he has been free since his second case was thrown out in 2015.
After Friday's ruling was read, Johnson hugged his defense attorney, assistant public defender Katy O'Donnell, who tearfully kissed him on the cheek.
"We have at all times asserted Michael Johnson's complete innocence," O'Donnell said outside the courthouse. "We grieve for the Barnes family and this tragedy, but convicting an innocent man is not justice for Phylicia Barnes. … We hope that one day, what really happened to Phylicia Barnes will be discovered and her family will get the peace they deserve."
Johnson left court without commenting, climbing into a waiting vehicle with a cellphone pressed to his ear.
Barnes' father was not present when the ruling was read and could not immediately be reached for comment.
City prosecutors fought hard for a conviction, re-indicting Johnson after a previous judge threw out the case in 2015. They appealed the case to the state's highest court and prevailed, sending Johnson to a third trial that reached the same result.
Friday's ruling cannot be appealed.
"We never wavered in our pursuit of justice for the Barnes family and the innocent child that tragically lost her life," State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a statement. "We believed, based in the evidence presented to us, that we were pursuing the individual responsible for her murder, but the justice system has run its course and we must now respect the court's decision."
In hearing arguments before his ruling, Peters repeatedly questioned prosecutors about their theory of the case. There was no direct evidence tying Johnson to the teen's death, but prosecutors have maintained that circumstantial evidence all pointed to Johnson, who dated Barnes' older half-sister Deena.
Authorities theorized that Johnson developed an obsession with Barnes, pointing to 1,200 text messages sent by the then-26-year-old and the teen between each other in the six months prior to her death. In June of that year, a "sex tape" was filmed in which Johnson, Deena Barnes, Phylicia Barnes and Johnson's younger brother engaged in "naked touching." Johnson that same night tried to touch Phylicia, who swatted his hand away, prosecutors said.
There were no sexually explicit or suggestive messages exchanged between Johnson and Barnes; O'Donnell said none could even be construed as flirtatious. Prosecutors countered that he was "grooming" her and careful with his words.
Peters took a dim view of that evidence of Johnson's motive.
"You're telling me he's obsessed with her," he said. "He sees her two times in 11 days" before she went missing, he said.
Assistant State's Attorney Michael Dunty countered that both times, Johnson saw the girl when no one else was around.
In his ruling, Peters said the "obsession theory is simply not established."
Prosecutors contended that Johnson waited for a moment alone with the girl, then strangled or suffocated her in a Northwest Baltimore apartment on Dec. 28, 2010. His cellphone was turned off during the period when the murder allegedly occurred, and he had called out of work.
"Lil sis is up and active," Johnson texted Deena Barnes the afternoon of the girl's disappearance.
Phylicia's nude body was found four months later, floating in the Susquehanna River. Authorities charted Johnson's movements using towers his cellphone connected with, which never place him anywhere near Harford County or the river.
The key evidence was an observation by a neighbor who said he saw Johnson struggling to move a large plastic storage bin the day she disappeared. Prosecutors believe the girl's body was inside but couldn't prove it.
Johnson had been in the process of moving out of the apartment after breaking up with Deena Barnes, whom he tried to reconcile with that morning over text messages. O'Donnell said he was moving his items, not a body, out of the apartment, and got food and stopped at a Wal-Mart — movements consistent with someone going about a regular day.
The defense said prosecutors couldn't prove how Phylicia Barnes died, or where the killing even occurred. They said there were alternate theories that could have explained what happened or sent police on new investigative paths, but they were focused on Johnson.
Peters, in his questioning of the prosecution, said there was inconsistent evidence about whether the storage container allegedly used to move Barnes' body was even missing at all. Deena Barnes, he said, gave conflicting testimony about whether the storage container had been accounted for.
"Without the tote," Peters said, using the term authorities have used to describe the container, "you have no case."
After Phylicia's body was found, Maryland State Police wiretapped Johnson's phone, and he was recorded discussing the case with family members. At one point, he wondered whether his DNA could have been found under the girl's fingernails, saying they had wrestled the day she went missing. Prosecutors said Johnson was anticipating a possible result and coming up with an excuse; no DNA or other forensic evidence was ever recovered.
He also spoke of fleeing the country.
"I feel like everything is about to hit the fan. I don't know if I'm ready to deal with it. I still have options, not many, but I feel like I should pack up and leave. I don't want to, but that's how I feel. I mean leave this country, babe," he was recorded saying.
His defense attorneys say those were nothing more than the words of a man feeling the pressure of a police investigation wrongly focused on him.
O'Donnell, outside the courthouse, praised the judges involved in Johnson's trials, who she said "stood up to try to ensure that true justice is done."
Perhaps key to Johnson's first conviction was the testimony of a man named James McCray who came forward after Johnson was indicted and said Johnson had summoned him to the apartment the day of Phylicia's disappearance. He said he saw her body and Johnson asked for help.
There was no corroborating evidence, and questions were later raised about McCray's credibility after it was revealed he had come forward in other cases. Montgomery County prosecutors informed Baltimore prosecutors that they had concerns about McCray and had not called him as a witness in one of their cases — information that was not turned over to Johnson's previous defense team until after his conviction.
Judge Alfred Nance overturned the conviction on the day Johnson was to be sentenced.
Judge John Addison Howard, who oversaw the second jury trial, declared a mistrial after prosecutors played a portion of a tape that jurors were not supposed to hear. He then reversed his mistrial ruling, and granted a motion for judgment of acquittal, saying prosecutors had failed to prove the case.
Prosecutors said Howard had overstepped his authority, and re-indicted Johnson. The new indictment was referred to Howard, who dismissed the case again. Prosecutors appealed to the state's highest court, which agreed Howard was unable to grant the acquittal motion, sending the case back for a the third trial.
O'Donnell said more judges should "take these proactive affirmative steps to ensure innocent men do not spend years of their lives in bars for crimes they did not commit."
With the case now resolved in the criminal courts, Johnson could be reappearing in civil court: O'Donnell said earlier this week that he has filed a notice of a $750,000 claim against one of the homicide detectives who handled the case.