Baltimore man pleads not guilty to Phylicia Barnes' murder

Michael Maurice Johnson pleaded not guilty Wednesday in the asphyxiation death of 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes, his former girlfriend’s half-sister, as a dozen of the teen’s friends and family looked on, many wearing purple.

It was Phylicia’s “favorite color,” her father, Russell Barnes, who lives in Atlanta, said outside the courthouse after the brief hearing.

It has “been a long morning,” he said, mopping his brow and declining to say much else. “We’re just letting justice prevail for right now.”

A trial date has been set for Aug. 13.

Johnson, 28, was arrested in April after a 16-month investigation, though police said they identified him as an early suspect after Barnes, an honors student from Monroe, N.C., went missing in December 2010 while visiting her older sister Deena in Baltimore.

He had exchanged 500 phone calls and text messages with the girl over a three-month period that summer, and Barnes told a relative that Johnson, who lived with Deena, made her feel “uncomfortable,” according to prosecutors. She didn’t like the way he looked at her, they said.

During a bail hearing this spring, Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Goldberg claimed Johnson suffocated Barnes, then moved her out of Deena’s apartment on the 6500 block of Eberle Drive in a 35-gallon plastic tub. A neighbor saw Johnson struggling with a container the day Barnes disappeared. Her nude body was found floating in the Susquehanna River in April of last year.

Russell Neverdon, one of Johnson’s attorneys, has previously said that Johnson was moving out because he and Barnes’ sister, who had been dating since high school, broke up.

Neverdon represented Johnson in city circuit court Wednesday, along with defense attorney Ivan Bates, and told reporters after the arraignment that he has seen no evidence linking Johnson to Barnes’ killing.

“There’s nothing to connect the dots,” he said, Bates at his side, adding that Johnson “unequivocally” maintains his innocence.

The defense lawyers said they have yet to see the charging documents against Johnson, though they has reviewed various investigative reports and the autopsy results, which show that Barnes death was a homicide by asphyxia. Neverdon said no other details to show how she suffocated have been revealed.

“There’s absolutely no physical evidence,” he said. There was “no indication of trauma” to Barnes, nor “injury to the physical person.”

Prosecutors are targeting Johnson, Neverdon claims, because the Baltimore man was the last to see Barnes alive.

On the morning of Dec. 28, 2010, Deena went to work and left Barnes sleeping in the apartment along with Johnson’s younger brother. Johnson arrived about 10 a.m. and picked up his brother, then returned to Deena’s.

Records show Barnes used her cell phone and computer until about 12:23 p.m. that day, Goldberg has said. About 40 minutes later, a neighbor spotted Johnson sweating and “having a great deal of trouble” trying to move a 35-gallon tub out of the apartment, Goldberg said during the bail hearing.

Barnes was never seen alive again, and Johnson did not show up for work that day.

He was led into the courtroom Wednesday in chains, wearing a gray sweater and ripped jeans. The black eye he got while resisting arrest, according to police, has since healed.

Neverdon pleaded not guilty on his client’s behalf and requested a trial by jury, and the judge asked Johnson if he understood the first-degree murder charge against him. Johnson nodded, then added a quiet “yes, sir” after the judge told him to speak up.

The proceeding took no more than a few minutes. Barnes’ family members, some in purple shirts or wearing purple arm bands or remembrance ribbons, embraced outside the courtroom. One man wore a shirt with the teen’s smiling face on it, flanked by angel wings.

“Gone but not forgotten,” it said. “The good die young.”

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