Katy O'Donnell, an attorney for Michael Johnson, makes a statement after a judge dropped charges against Johnson in the Phylicia Barnes murder case. (Justin Fenton/Baltimore Sun)
A Baltimore judge has dismissed charges against the man accused in the late 2010 disappearance and death of 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes, setting free the only suspect in a case that drew national attention but has been criticized as flimsy.
Michael Maurice Johnson, 30, has been jailed since 2012 and was convicted of second-degree murder a year later in the teen's death. Piecing together what they described as "circumstantial evidence," prosecutors alleged that Johnson developed a questionable relationship with the teen — the younger half-sister of his longtime girlfriend — then killed her and dumped her body in the Susquehanna River.
Previously, Judge Alfred J. Nance, who overturned Johnson's 2013 conviction, had expressed "great concern" over the evidence in the case. On Tuesday, Judge John Addison Howard, who declared a mistrial at a second trial last month, ruled that prosecutors had presented insufficient evidence.
Howard's decision, delivered in a brief statement, led to Johnson's release Tuesday evening from the Baltimore City Detention Center.
"Michael Johnson has maintained his innocence from day one," said Katy O'Donnell, one of two attorneys from the public defender's office who represented Johnson. "We absolutely, firmly believe the court did the right thing and justice was done."
Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a statement that Howard had "no jurisdiction to grant the acquittal" and vowed to appeal.
The decision was the latest twist in a case that saw a conviction overturned, a key witness discredited and, just last month, a mistrial because of prosecutorial error.
Phylicia's father, Russell Barnes, said the judicial system let his daughter down. He said the process seemed to be in Johnson's favor and that important evidence was never admitted.
"In my mind, the city of Baltimore has let a child predator go," Barnes said. "We still want justice for Phylicia."
Johnson's mother, Rhonda Mullins, was present in the courtroom Tuesday and called the case a "nightmare" for her family. Mullins, a retired city police officer, said her son's acquittal was "wonderful news."
At Tuesday's hearing, Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Goldberg told the judge that all available evidence pointed to Johnson.
"We don't have a motive," Goldberg told Howard. "We don't need a motive. ... There is no boogeyman out there who took Phylicia Barnes. The circumstances point back to the defendant."
Phylicia Barnes was an honor student and athlete in North Carolina, where she lived with her mother. She had reconnected with her half-sisters over Facebook, and began making visits to Baltimore. She hoped to attend Towson University to be closer to them.
It was on a trip to visit her sisters during Christmas break that she vanished on Dec. 28, 2010.
During both trials, prosecutors told jurors they believed Johnson had developed an inappropriate relationship with the teen, whom he called "lil' sis." They pointed to hundreds of text messages exchanged in the six months before her disappearance, though the content of the messages was never disclosed.
At a party in June 2010, prosecutors said, he and the girl went streaking and then, along with Johnson's younger brother and Phylicia's half-sister Deena Barnes, went to a field where a fifth person filmed the four engaged in "naked touching." That video was played for jurors at both trials, with prosecutors theorizing that it represented a turn in the brother-sister-like relationship.
Meanwhile, Johnson's 10-year relationship with Deena Barnes had been crumbling, according to prosecutors. Johnson had said that on the morning of the girl's disappearance, he had gone to Deena's apartment to gather some belongings to move out, and later called out of work.
"We have a defendant who just per chance takes the day off from work," Goldberg said Tuesday. "We have all these things that make you go 'hmm.'"
A neighbor said he saw Johnson struggling to move a plastic storage container out of the apartment, and prosecutors alleged that Phylicia's body was inside. Goldberg said Johnson showed little interest upon hearing the news that the girl was missing.
Defense attorneys said Johnson was cooperative with police and offered to help in the search until he was asked to stay away. Cellphone records that trace his movements did not show him anywhere near the Susquehanna in Harford County, where the teen's body was found in April 2011.
Investigators tapped Johnson's phone for two months, during which he discussed the case and speculated about police tactics, as well as fleeing the country. But he did not admit to the crime.
Johnson was indicted by a grand jury on charges of first-degree murder in April 2012.
Two months later, a petty thief named James McCray contacted police from a jail in Charles County and told them Johnson had called him for help the day of Phylicia Barnes' disappearance, saying he had raped and strangled her. McCray said Johnson summoned him to the apartment, where he saw her body.
McCray had previously come forward as a witness in other high-profile cases across the region, and contacted Baltimore investigators with information only after Johnson had been charged. Prosecutors said McCray had key details that he could not have gleaned from public accounts.
McCray testified at the first trial. But the judge determined that prosecutors failed to tell defense attorneys about information raising doubts about McCray's credibility. Nance ordered a new trial, saying that the state had to prove its case "not by speculation or assumption, but by evidence."
Prosecutors opted not to present McCray as a witness in last month's trial.
During the second trial, prosecutors played a wiretapped phone call between Johnson and one of his brothers. Howard ordered part of the tape redacted, and after a recess prosecutors said they had properly edited it. But when it was played, jurors again heard the portion Howard had ordered removed.
Howard, who said he did not believe the mistake was intentional, declared a mistrial Dec. 22.
Five jurors interviewed after the mistrial told The Baltimore Sun they would have voted to acquit Johnson based on the state's case. "The evidence wasn't there at all, to me," said juror Audra Agnelly.
In court Tuesday, O'Donnell and fellow defense attorney Kaye Beehler said they believed the failure to redact the tapes was intentional. Beehler alleged that the state made the error in hopes of prompting a new trial because prosecutors sensed the current one was "going down the tubes."
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