In Barnes trial, defense questions detective's search for daughter

In a frantic search for his own missing teenage daughter, the lead detective in the Phylicia Barnes murder case donned a black hooded sweatshirt and, along with two other men, forced his way into a Northeast Baltimore apartment where he believed she was hiding, attorneys said in court Thursday.

Once inside, the men held down the occupants of the apartment so they could search for the girl and snatched a phone so the occupants could not call 911, attorneys said.

Details of the accusations against Detective Daniel T. Nicholson IV emerged for the first time as defense attorneys and prosecutors sparred over whether the incident can be raised during the murder trial of Michael Maurice Johnson, who is accused of killing Barnes. Defense attorneys said the incident raises questions about the detective's credibility.

Circuit Judge Alfred Nance ruled that he would allow limited questioning about whether Nicholson was truthful to investigators probing the search for his daughter. Opening statements in the case are scheduled to begin Friday morning after two days of jury selection and pretrial arguments.

Nicholson, an 18-year Police Department veteran and father of two, was suspended by the department April 23, 2012. Two days later, prosecutors brought one count of first-degree murder against Johnson, who had long been considered a suspect in Barnes' Dec. 28, 2010, disappearance.

Nicholson has not been charged in connection with the search for his daughter, but the case is open and he remains suspended. His attorneys were restricted by a gag order from talking about the case, but they have previously said he responded to the situation as any father would and did nothing wrong.

Johnson's lawyers have argued that his indictment was brought hastily because of Nicholson's troubles. They contend that Nicholson's alleged actions during the search for his daughter indicate a pattern of bending the rules, and they accuse Nicholson of antagonizing Johnson and his family during the murder investigation.

Attorney Ivan Bates argued Thursday in a motion to "disqualify the Baltimore state's attorney's office because of the appearance of impropriety" that prosecutors were intentionally holding off on charging Nicholson to preserve their case and prevent the defense from raising the allegations at trial.

Prosecutors scoffed at that notion, and Nance denied the motion.

Later in the same hearing, prosecutors moved to prevent the defense from mentioning the Nicholson case by pointing to the fact that he had not been charged or convicted.

"At the end of the day, these are mere accusations," said Assistant State's Attorney Tonya LaPolla. "There's been no finding in criminal court or within Baltimore police administrative procedures."

Police do not pursue misconduct allegations administratively until prosecutors have decided whether to forgo charges or the case has been resolved in court.

LaPolla said of the alleged victims' account that "what was described was breaking and entering and second-degree assault."

Prosecutors did not explain why they have not moved on Nicholson's case other than to say that the statute of limitations had not expired and that other investigative work may have been necessary.

Bates said that Janice Bledsoe, the former head of the state's attorney's police integrity division, was prepared to testify that she recommended unspecified charges against Nicholson but that the office did not take action. Bledsoe, who left that office last summer, waited in the hallway outside the courtroom while her successor, Shelly Glenn, sat at the prosecution table. Nance decided Bledsoe's testimony would not be necessary.

Bates said prosecutors had turned over documents related to the case showing Nicholson was not truthful during the investigation of the incident. Citing those documents, Bates said a detective told investigators that Nicholson asked him to use departmental phone-tracing databases to find someone he believed to be with his daughter. But he said Nicholson denied doing so when questioned.

Nicholson also denied entering the Bowleys Lane apartment, though the occupants picked him out of two photo lineups, Bates said. According to the occupants of the apartment, three people were involved, one of whom Nicholson identified as a family member. He has not identified the third person, Bates said.

Bates said Nicholson had a "character trait of untruthfulness."

Nance skeptically questioned Bates and appeared unconvinced. "Because he did something wrong before, he will always do something wrong?" he asked at one point.

But Nance ruled that he would allow limited questioning of Nicholson and required Bates to submit his questions in advance.

He noted that Nicholson, whose attorney, Matthew Fraling, was in attendance, could choose not to answer the questions. Bates acknowledged as much but said it was important that attorneys be able to ask the questions.

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