Barnes' family says verdict boosts efforts to spur better investigations

When Phylicia Barnes' disappearance drew national attention two years ago, it prompted calls for stronger response to reports of missing children — particularly minorities. Some who made those pleas said Wednesday that Michael Maurice Johnson's conviction in Barnes' murder validated their efforts.

The case spurred the General Assembly to pass "Phylicia's Law" in 2012, promoting better coordination of law enforcement and search efforts in the crucial first hours after children go missing. Barnes' family also created a foundation in her name devoted to supporting the families of missing children.

Supporters of the law acknowledged they haven't seen it put to use yet. But they said they hope the Barnes case is both a lesson and a comfort in the future.

"Even though this is a very sad occasion, and Phylicia will never come back, the Barnes family, they have justice," said Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, a Prince George's County-based organization focused on raising awareness about missing persons who are minorities. "We hope that this will give other families hope that there will be justice for their missing loved one."

Barnes was 16 when she vanished Dec. 28, 2010, while visiting Baltimore from North Carolina. Johnson, who had been dating Barnes' older half-sister for a decade, was accused of killing the girl, hiding her body in a plastic storage container. They said he dumped her body in the Susquehanna River, where it was found four months later.

A jury convicted Johnson of second-degree murder Wednesday morning after a 10-day trial.

Barnes' family celebrated the verdict outside of Baltimore Circuit Court, expressing relief that the slain girl could "move on." Her father, Russell Barnes, told reporters that he hoped his daughter's murder would prevent future tragedies.

"Phylicia's Law will change a lot of things around how we conduct business in the state, as far as how we handle missing children, runaways," Russell Barnes said. "You guys can stick with us, working with Phylicia's Law, and make sure things like this don't happen again."

The law requires the state to publish a list of missing children along with statistics, and a list of volunteers who can aid law enforcement in the search for missing children. While similar laws exist in other states, it was the first such law named after a child who was a minority, Wilson said.

Barnes' family pushed for the improved coordination after a long search for Phylicia, and the lengthy and trying investigation after her body turned up at the Conowingo Dam. Six months after her disappearance, the family criticized police for not sharing enough information with them and the public.

During Johnson's trial, his lawyers seized on lapses in the police investigation in the first days and weeks of the search for Barnes. For example, sheets on a bed in the apartment where Barnes was staying were not tested for DNA because by the time investigators began looking for such details, the sheets would have been contaminated, lawyers said in court.

Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who introduced Phylicia's Law, said she intends to follow up on how the policy may have benefited missing persons searches since it took effect Oct. 1. She also learned a lesson from lawmakers' receptiveness to the bill and plans to name a bill to address police use of force during arrests for Christopher Brown, a Randallstown teen who died last year after being tackled by a Baltimore County police officer.

Carter credited lawmakers for "acknowledging the gravity" of such untimely deaths.

"It's always going to be a tragedy because a beautiful 16-year-old child was murdered," Carter said.

Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this report.

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