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Supreme Court declines to take up Phylicia Barnes case, clearing way for Johnson's third murder trial

The U.S. Supreme Court will not take up the case of a man from West Baltimore facing his third criminal trial in the death of 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes.

Michael Maurice Johnson, 33, appealed to the Supreme Court to block the upcoming trial. But the court announced Monday it would not take up his request. The Supreme Court routinely considers only a small number of the cases that reach it on appeal.

The decision clears the way for Johnson’s jury trial in Baltimore Circuit Court next year. He faces one count of second-degree murder.

Barnes, an honors student from North Carolina, vanished seven years ago while visiting her half-sister in Northwest Baltimore. Her body was found months later floating in the Susquehanna River.

Johnson was the last known person to see Barnes alive. He had dated her half-sister for years, but they were breaking up when the teen disappeared. Prosecutors said Johnson had developed a relationship with Barnes and called in sick from work the day she went missing. Witnesses said they saw Johnson struggling to move a plastic container out of his ex-girlfriend's apartment that day. Authorities believe Barnes' body was concealed inside.

Johnson was charged in 2012, but the case has been dogged by procedural missteps.

Johnson went to trial in 2013 and was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder. At his sentencing, Circuit Judge Alfred Nance overturned the conviction because he found prosecutors had withheld evidence.

In the second trial, Judge John Addison Howard declared a mistrial after prosecutors played a recording jurors were not supposed to hear. Howard then reversed the mistrial ruling and dismissed the charges, saying prosecutors had insufficient evidence.

Prosecutors, believing Howard had made an error, promptly re-indicted Johnson. But Circuit Judge Timothy Doory denied an arrest warrant sought by prosecutors and instead Johnson was served with a summons and not detained. The case was sent back to Howard, who dismissed the new indictment. Then the state Court of Appeals — Maryland’s highest court — reinstated the charges in April.

In appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, Johnson’s attorney, Katy O'Donnell, had argued that the state appeals court's decision was "greatly in error" and violated Johnson's constitutional rights.

"The government, with its vast resources, ought not be permitted to try him yet again after the trial judge explicitly found that the evidence was legally insufficient to establish that he was the criminal agent," Assistant Public Defender Michael R. Braudes wrote in a petition filed with the Supreme Court this summer.

Johnson remains on supervised release. His third trial is scheduled to begin March 5.

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/Tim_Prudente

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