The man accused of killing teenager Phylicia Barnes in 2010 is headed for a third trial after another Baltimore judge found prosecutor error had tainted the case presented to jurors.
Circuit Judge John Addison Howard granted a defense motion for a mistrial, saying prosecutors had twice exposed jurors to material that was supposed to have been withheld. The move came after prosecutors concluded two weeks of testimony and as defense attorneys for Michael Maurice Johnson were set to begin their presentation.
The judge’s ruling is the latest setback for prosecutors. Johnson’s previous conviction in 2013 was overturned after the judge who oversaw that case, Alfred Nance, ruled that prosecutors had withheld information about an alleged witness to the crime that might lead jurors to question his credibility. And before that, the lead detective on the case was himself arrested and charged with going on a rogue hunt for his own missing daughter.
The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office said Johnson will continue to be held without bail, and Howard said a new trial date will be set Tuesday. Johnson’s attorneys argued that prosecutors shouldn’t be allowed to try him again. Howard did not address that claim.
Johnson, 30, was charged in 2012 with murdering Barnes, a North Carolina high school student who went missing from her sister’s Northwest Baltimore apartment on Dec. 28, 2010. Her body was found floating in the Susquehanna River four months later.
Five jurors interviewed Monday said 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. “It was a weak case.”
Phylicia’s father, Russell Barnes, who has traveled from Georgia for both trials, shook his head outside of courtroom. “Let’s do it all over again,” he said. “As long as [Johnson] stays in jail, we’ll do it all over again till we get it right.”
Johnson, meanwhile, has spent more than two years in jail for a crime his family says he did not commit.
His father, Glenton Johnson Sr., said he was “happy that the judge [had] seen through what the state was doing,” referring to what Johnson’s family believes are attempts by prosecutors and police to skew the evidence toward a conviction.
There is a gag order in the case, and prosecutors and defense attorneys could not be reached for comment about what caused the mistrial. But it appeared to center on wiretapped phone conversations between Johnson and others that were played for the jury Friday.
At the time the calls were being intercepted, grand jury proceedings were taking place in Harford County, where Barnes’ body was found. A state trooper has said convening the grand jury was a tactic to get Johnson talking about the case.
During one call, Johnson could be heard mentioning that “first-degree murder is with an intent”— at which point defense attorneys objected. A lengthy delay followed.
Johnson was on trial this time for second-degree murder, not first-degree.
Howard later said the jury had twice heard improper material. But he also said he did not believe the error was intentional or the result of “gross negligence,” referring to an expression of “shock” on prosecutors’ faces. He said that nonetheless, the jury had been tainted.
Michael Johnson was the longtime boyfriend of Phylicia’s older sister, Deena. Phylicia was raised in North Carolina by her mother, but had been making trips to Baltimore to visit after connecting with halfsistersover Facebook.
Her disappearance drew national media attention.
Johnson was the last known person to see her alive. His attorneys say authorities wrongly fixated on him and failed to explore other options. Prosecutors say Johnson’s involvement is the only “logical conclusion.”
“There is only one person in this investigation that all of the facts and circumstances point to,” Assistant State’s Attorney Tonya LaPolla said during closing arguments at the first trial.
Prosecutors during both trials told jurors that they believe Johnson had developed an inappropriate relationship with Phylicia, whom he called “lil sis.” They have pointed to hundreds of text messages exchanged in the six months prior to her disappearance, though the content of those messages has not been shared.
But at a party in June 2010, prosecutors said, he and the teenage girl went streaking, then, along with Johnson’s younger brother and Deena Barnes, retreated 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 saying it represented a turn in the brother-sister-like relationship between Johnson and Phylicia.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s 10-year relationship with Phylicia’s sister had been crumbling in the preceding months. On the day she disappeared, Johnson said he had gone to the apartment to gather some belongings.
A neighbor said he saw Johnson struggling to move a plastic storage container out of the apartment. Prosecutors believe her body was inside.
Two months after Johnson was charged, an alleged witness named James McCray contacted police from a jail in Charles County and said Johnson had called him for help, saying he had raped and strangled her. McCray said Johnson summoned him to the apartment, where he saw Phylicia’s body. Though McCray came forward with the information only after Johnson had been publicly identified as the suspect in Barnes’ murder, prosecutors said he had key details that he could not have gleaned from public accounts.
McCray testified during the first trial. But the judge later determined that prosectuors had failed to share with the defense information raising doubts about his credibility, causing Nance to order a new trial.
Prosecutors opted not to present McCray’s claims to the jury in this month’s trial.
Defense attorneys say Johnson was cooperative with police and his account matches up with his movements the day of Phylicia’s disappearance as chronicled by cell phone records showing which towers his phone connected with. Those records never show him traveling anywhere near Harford County.
The wiretapped calls came in October and November 2011, months after Phylicia’s body was found. In the recordings, Johnson could be heard discussing the case and speculating about police tactics, and also talked of fleeing the country. But he did not admit to the crime.
Assistant State’s Attorneys Lisa Goldberg, a supervisor in the homicide unit, and LaPolla tried the case both times.
Public defenders Katy O’Donnell and Kaye Beehler represented Johnson in the most recent trial, and filed numerous motions and objections, including asking that Howard recuse himself from the case before the trial because they believed he was biased against them.
Jurors interviewed Monday said they did not believe prosecutors had presented a compelling case.
“When I left Friday, I thought it was the defense’s game to lose,” said juror Donna Goodlett.
Juror Danielle Daughtry said she wanted to know more about Johnson’s travels on Dec. 28, 2010, and who he was talking to on the phone at that time. She also said she did not believe he had shown enough remorse.
While Daughtry said she was looking forward to sorting through evidence once it was turned over to the jury, she would have voted to acquit if the case had gone to the jury Monday.
Another juror, who would not give her name because of the high-profile nature of the case, said there was “no motive.”
“I’m a very logical person, and I couldn’t understand” the state’s case, she said.