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Second trial in Phylicia Barnes murder begins without key witness

A member of the Guardian Angels holds down a flyer during the search for Phylicia Barnes in 2011.
A member of the Guardian Angels holds down a flyer during the search for Phylicia Barnes in 2011. (Jed Kirschbaum / Baltimore Sun)

The retrial of the man accused of killing North Carolina teenager Phylicia Barnes four years ago opened Friday, with prosecutors indicating they will not call a witness whose involvement in the last trial led a judge to throw out the jury's guilty verdict.

A jury acquitted Michael Maurice Johnson, 30, of first-degree murder in February 2013 but convicted him of second-degree murder. A month later, the judge overseeing the case threw out his conviction, saying prosecutors had withheld information about witness James McCray.

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McCray, at the time an inmate who was derided by defense attorneys as a "jailhouse snitch," said he had seen Phylicia Barnes' body after Johnson asked him for help disposing it. His was the only testimony that linked Johnson directly to a murder scene.

McCray had been a witness at two other unrelated trials, but prosecutors did not disclose to the defense that Montgomery County officials had decided not to use him in a murder case there after one officer raised questions about his credibility.

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Without McCray, prosecutors will have what the previous judge called a "circumstantial" case. It focuses on questioning Johnson's contact with the 16-year-old girl in the months before her disappearance, and what they call his indifference as her relatives searched for her.

Prosecutors also point to an account from a neighbor who saw Johnson struggling to move a storage container that they believe the girl's body was stuffed inside.

Johnson has new attorneys for this trial, both former members of the state public defender's office's now-defunct capital punishment unit.

The attorneys, Katy O'Donnell and Kaye Beehler, filed more than 30 motions in the case, including asking that both prosecutors recuse themselves and requesting that the jury sit on a different side of the courtroom so it could better hear the defense's arguments.

After Baltimore Circuit Judge John Addison Howard denied most of the motions, the attorneys also filed a motion asking Howard to step down from overseeing the case, arguing he was biased against them. Howard denied that motion, too.

Phylicia Barnes, an honors student from Monroe, N.C., was in Baltimore in December 2010 to visit her half sisters, with whom she had connected over social media. She went missing from the Northwest Baltimore apartment of her older sister, Deena Barnes.

The teen's nude body was eventually found floating in the Susquehanna River in April 2011, four months after she was last seen. The medical examiner ruled that she had been asphyxiated.

Johnson was not charged until a year later, after a Harford County grand jury convened and disbanded without charging Johnson. His previous defense attorneys said the only new evidence to arise during that time was the emergence of McCray.

McCray said Johnson told him he had raped the girl and strangled her after she wouldn't stop crying. Defense attorneys attacked McCray's credibility, but prosecutors countered that he knew information he would not have been able to provide if he was making up the story.

Johnson faced 30 years after being convicted of second-degree murder. But at his sentencing, Judge Alfred Nance threw out the conviction, saying he did not get a fair trial because prosecutors withheld the Montgomery County officials' reservations about McCray.

In opening statements, O'Donnell said police and prosecutors wrongly concentrated on Johnson from the start of their investigation and have assembled "little discrepancies, little inconsistencies" to point the finger at Johnson.

"When you listen to everything presented to you, there is no credible evidence that Michael Johnson … murdered Phylicia Barnes," O'Donnell told the jury. "There's no motive for this crime.

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"It's not right by Phylicia Barnes' family or Phylicia Barnes herself to convict the wrong man."

Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Goldberg, who is trying the case a second time along with Tonya LaPolla, said prosecutors will once again present a video to the jury showing a nude and intoxicated Phylicia Barnes frolicking with Johnson, her older sister and his younger brother in June 2010.

"The events of that night, the evidence will show, changed the relationships for everyone in that group," Goldberg said.

Johnson, who was in the process of ending a 10-year relationship with the teen's older sister, began texting Phylicia Barnes with increasing frequency, Goldberg said. The day she disappeared, Johnson texted Deena Barnes that he had seen Phylicia and that she was "up and active."

When Deena Barnes returned to the apartment, Phylicia was gone. Her shoes and some other belongings were left behind.

Goldberg acknowledged that the state's case comes up short. "We're not able to give you how the body ended up in that debris pit," she said. "That is a mystery we have never been able to solve. But the evidence will show you, the mystery that was solved is who murdered Phylicia Barnes.

"Michael Johnson murdered Phylicia Barnes."

O'Donnell accused police of using heavy-handed pressure tactics on Johnson and his family to press their theory that he was responsible. She said that authorities can't place Johnson anywhere near the Susquehanna River and that the content of the text messages he exchanged with Phylicia Barnes are not of an inappropriate nature.

To "say it is a motive for a murder makes no sense at all," O'Donnell said.

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