As his second trial for the murder of 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes approaches, Michael Maurice Johnson took the witness stand Tuesday and testified that his former attorney told him he had to talk to police — bad advice his new lawyers say helped get him convicted.
"He didn't give me an option," said Johnson, 30, his voice scratchy over the courtroom speakers.
A Baltimore jury found Johnson guilty of second degree murder last year, but the verdict was overturned after a judge ruled that prosecutors withheld information about a key witness in the case. A new trial is scheduled for December and this week prosecutors and Johnson's lawyers in the public defender's office are battling over what evidence can be used against him.
Barnes disappeard in 2010 while on vacation in the city from North Carolina and staying with her sister, Johnson's then-girlfriend. Her body eventually was found floating in the Susquehanna River, and after a lengthy investigation Johnson was indicted on murder charges.
On Tuesday morning, Johnson's team raised the idea that his old attorney, write-in state's attorney candidate Russell A. Neverdon Sr., had blundered in the course of that investigation, leading his client to make a statement to homicide detectives that was not tape recorded.
Wearing a yellow jail jumpsuit, Johnson described a series of interactions he had beginning on New Years' Eve 2010 with detectives investigating Barnes' disappearance.
Katy O'Donnell, one of Johnson's attorneys, asked why he agreed to talk with detectives at the end of January 2011 after refusing to do so when taken to police headquarters in cuffs just a little over a week before.
"I felt as though I had to," Johnson said. "That's what Mr. Neverdon told me … he told me I could be forced to come in and answer questions."
Without that legal guidance, Johnson said, he would not have given a statement. The content of Johnson's statements to police was not discussed at the hearing.
And because Neverdon declined to allow the interview to be taped, Johnson's lawyers argued, detectives and prosecutors could tell the jury that statements Johnson made were inconsistent with an earlier account he gave to police and he had no way to counter them.
Johnson's lawyers want the judge to rule that the errors mean the second statement should not be used as evidence at trial.
In an interview, Neverdon denied advising Johnson that he could be compelled to talk to police and said he could not "account for why Mr. Johnson would have been under that impression."
As for the taping, Neverdon said, "I don't control what the police do or don't do."
Prosecutors said Johnson was not in custody during the interview and rejected his lawyers' argument that he had no defense against the statements. Assistant State's Attorney Tonya LaPolla said that Johnson could call Neverdon to testify about his recollections of the interview.
The judge had not ruled on the issue.