A third trial opened Wednesday for the man accused of killing 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes more than seven years ago.
Barnes, an honors student and athlete from Monroe, N.C., vanished without a trace while visiting her older half-sisters in Northwest Baltimore. Her body was found months later floating in the Susquehanna River.
Michael Maurice Johnson, 34, was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder in 2013 and acquitted by a judge in 2015, but both verdicts were overturned.
Judges in those trials expressed concerns about the evidence, and Johnson has chosen to be tried by a judge this time: Baltimore Circuit Judge Charles J. Peters, who is in charge of the city’s criminal docket.
Assistant State’s Attorney Noelle Newman told Peters in the prosecution’s opening statement that Johnson developed inappropriate interest in the teen, the younger sister of his longtime girlfriend, and moved when he saw an opportunity to get her alone.
“Michael Johnson was attracted to her, he was obsessed with her, and ultimately on Dec. 28, 2010, Michael Johnson murdered Phylicia Barnes,” Newman said as State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby looked on from the gallery.
The state’s case continues to center on Johnson’s being the last known person to have seen her alive, and the observations of a neighbor who saw Johnson struggling to move a large storage container step-by-step out of his apartment building. They believe Barnes’ body was stuffed inside the plastic tub.
Lead defense attorney Katy O’Donnell said the state has no evidence to back its theory, with “almost every piece of ‘aha’ information” having a reasonable explanation.
“In the end, the evidence you will not have is evidence about what actually happened to Phylicia Barnes,” O’Donnell said.
The decision for a bench trial came after two previous judges criticized the state’s case. At Johnson’s first trial, Judge Alfred Nance expressed “great concern” about the evidence but allowed a jury to decide. Judge John Addison Howard threw out the case after ruling a mistrial in Johnson’s second jury trial, saying the evidence was “unarguably circumstantial” and contained “no direct evidence” linking him to Barnes’ death.
A new team of three prosecutors — Newman, Michael Dunty, and Brian Bajew — replaced the trial team that handled the first two cases.
The key to the prosecution’s theory that Johnson was obsessed with Barnes is a video made in June 2010, in which he and the teenage girl went streaking. Later in the video, along with Barnes’ sister and Johnson’s girlfriend at the time, Deena Barnes, and Johnson’s younger brother, the four engaged in “naked touching.” Prosecutors say the video marked a turning point in the sibling-like relationship between Johnson and Phylicia.
“That’s when the obsession with Phylicia Barnes began,” Newman said.
Newman, who stood in front of Johnson and occasionally looked directly at him while speaking, said phone records show Johnson began to more frequently text and call the teenager, who was back in North Carolina. Meanwhile, his relationship with her sister was ending, and he was moving out of their shared apartment as Phylicia visited for winter break.
On the day she went missing, Johnson called out of work and went to Barnes’ apartment. Around 1 p.m., her cell phone shut off, and Johnson texted her sister that “your lame sister fell asleep.”
Around that time, Johnson was seen by a neighbor sweating “profusely” as he moved a storage container out of the apartment, Newman said.
Newman said Johnson wasn’t involved in search efforts after the first day, nor did he text Deena Barnes.
O’Donnell said Johnson “didn’t have anything to do with the disappearance and death of Phylicia Barnes,” and that investigators don’t know “how, or when, or why she died.”
The teen’s coat, purse and phone were gone, as were a pair of new Ugg slippers she received for Christmas. O’Donnell said a “much more reasonable and rational conclusion” is that Phylicia “left voluntarily on her own for innocent reasons, and then something bad happened.”
She said Johnson was honest and consistent with police about his actions that day: He called out of work because he didn’t want to perform a particular job he had to do that day. The storage container carried items he was moving out of the apartment. His cell phone never hit towers anywhere near the Susquehanna River.
He also stopped communicating with the Barnes family because he’d been told to stay away, she said.
“Your honor, his behavior is perfectly reasonable and understandable,” O’Donnell said.
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Johnson wore a black suit with a crimson dress shirt. He has been free since his acquittal in January 2015. Howard had initially ruled a mistrial, but then granted a motion for judgment of acquittal, saying the state had failed to prove its case. The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office re-indicted Johnson, and Howard threw the case out again. But the state won on appeal, with Maryland’s highest court ruling Howard did not have the authority to acquit Johnson after declaring a mistrial. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the case.
Left unresolved is whether prosecutors will call a witness who may have been key to the conviction at the first trial. Credibility issues later raised about the witness, James McCray, were the reason the jury verdict was thrown out.
McCray contacted police from a jail in Charles County two months after Johnson was charged, and claimed he had been called to Johnson’s apartment two years earlier and saw Phylicia’s body. McCray said Johnson had called him for help, confessing that he had raped and strangled her.
Before Johnson was sentenced, information emerged that McCray had come forward as a witness in two other court cases, and his credibility had been questioned by authorities in a third, causing him not to be used.
Prosecutors chose not to present McCray's claims to the jury at the second trial, but Dunty said they are preserving the option of calling him at the third trial. They have not been able to contact McCray since October, however.