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Feb. 6 1:35 pm
Justin Fenton

Jury convicts Michael Johnson on second-degree murder count

A Baltimore jury found Michael Maurice Johnson guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Phylicia Barnes, a 16-year-old from North Carolina whose disappearance without a trace from her sister’s Northwest Baltimore apartment in 2010 touched off a search that garnered national attention.

Johnson stood with his eyes closed as jurors read the verdict, and did not appear to react. Jurors acquitted him on the initial charge of first-degree murder, but after almost two days of deliberating reached a unanimous verdict on a second-degree count, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

“Justice is served,” her father, Russell Barnes, said outside the courthouse. “Phylicia can sleep now.”

Lawyers on both sides had acknowledged in closing arguments that the evidence against Johnson was circumstantial. But while defense attorneys described flaws and inconsistencies, prosecutors said the facts pointed to Johnson as the only reasonable suspect.

State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein cheered the verdict and said that the trial demonstrated that his office will take on tough cases. Police had considered Johnson, the longtime boyfriend of Phylicia’s older half-sister and the last known person to see her alive, to be a suspect from the beginning of the investigation after her disappearance on Dec. 28, 2010.

He was charged in April 2012, a year after her body was found floating in the Susquehanna River.

“This was a challenging case; this was a difficult case,” Bernstein said. “This is why I ran for state’s attorney – to bring these types of cases, and let the jury make its decision.”

Defense attorneys said they were stunned by the verdict. Russell Neverdon said the state’s key witness lost all credibility on the stand, and that the other evidence “just didn’t add up.” But Ivan Bates, another attorney, noted that the state had offered a plea deal that would’ve sent Johnson to prison for 50 years.

“In our mind, we’ve already won something,” Bates said.

Read the full story here.

Feb. 4 1:43 pm
Scott Dance

Arguments address circumstantial evidence

Lawyers on both sides of the trial against Michael Maurice Johnson acknowledged the circumstantial nature of evidence in the case, with prosecutors asking the jury to view the case broadly with common sense, but defense attorneys highlighting the inconsistencies.

Prosecutors painted a scenario in which Johnson had been courting Phylicia Barnes in the months before her disappearance. Despite some inconsistencies in testimony, they argued that overall the evidence pointed to Johnson.

Defense attorneys rejected the theory and instead pointed to the evidence, or lack thereof — that the only witness claiming to have seen the body is unreliable, and that there is nothing tying Johnson to the Susquehanna River, where Barnes’ body was found.

Feb. 4 10:19 am
Scott Dance

Barnes trial set for closing arguments

Lawyers defending Michael Maurice Johnson, accused of murdering North Carolina teen Phylicia Barnes in 2010, rested their case after calling a single witness Monday morning. Closing arguments were set to take place around 10:30 a.m.

The defense called Jeffrey Stillman, a co-worker of Johnson’s at a roof shingle manufacturing company, who testified that Johnson was “a good worker.”

Stillman also said Johnson called out sick Dec. 28, 2010, the day Barnes disappeared.

Jurors may have another charge to consider in deliberations — prosecutors moved to add a second-degree murder charge on top of the first-degree charge Johnson already faced.

Feb. 1 4:46 pm
Justin Fenton

Judge expresses “great concern” over state evidence, but case will proceed

The Baltimore judge overseeing the Phylicia Barnes murder trial said Friday that prosecutors are proceeding on a circumstantial theory that caused him “great concern,” but added that the case should continue and be presented to jurors.

Circuit Court Judge Alfred Nance’s comments came after prosecutors rested their case and the defense moved for an acquittal for Michael Maurice Johnson.

Johnson is charged with one count of first-degree murder, and defense attorney Mary Lloyd said prosecutors cannot prove that he planned to kill Phylicia. “There’s no evidence whatsoever that he planned or premeditated the act,” Lloyd told Nance after jurors were sent home for the day.

Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Goldberg acknowledged that the case is “largely circumstantial” but said Johnson’s own account of his actions that day “does not add up.”

Read the full story here.

Feb. 1 4:01 pm
Scott Dance

State rests its case

Prosecutors rested their case against Michael Maurice Johnson about 3:45 p.m. Friday.

Final witnesses called included Nikita McCray, one of the last people with whom Phylicia Barnes had contact before going missing, and Det. Ray Bennett, a city police detective who at points led the investigation into Barnes’ disappearance.

Judge Alfred Nance sent jurors home afterward, with the defense left to present any further witnesses Monday.

Feb. 1 1:34 pm
Justin Fenton

Jail phone call from this week played for jurors – but what of it? 

Prosecutors on Friday morning also played a recording of a  jailhouse phone call made by Michael Maurice Johnson on Monday night to an unknown person. The disclosure of the call was intriguing, and after calling an official from the state prison system to the stand,  the attorneys held a lengthy bench conference, then took a break. But when prosecutors eventually played the call, it was almost completely unintelligible, and jurors weren’t given a transcript. Johnson could be heard saying Deena’s name at one point, but the context was unclear. Jurors might be able to figure out what was said when they have a crack at the evidence during deliberations.

Feb. 1 1:27 pm
Justin Fenton

Prosecution not able to use replica plastic container to demonstrate that a body could fit inside

Throughout trial, a large, blue plastic storage container has sat under a table in the courtroom. It’s been shown to various witnesses, and police have described how they came into possession of it. But it wasn’t until today that Judge Alfred Nance allowed it to become evidence, and only for a very limited purpose.

The prosecution’s theory is that Michael Maurice Johnson killed Phylicia Barnes inside her sister’s apartment, then put her body into a plastic container that he was observed by a neighbor struggling to move. At some point, the body was dumped into the Susquehanna River, and a medical examiner testified that the body could have been preserved inside the container for some period of time.

Prosecutors have a storage container from Deena Barnes’ apartment that they believe is identical to the one that was used, and during their investigation had someone climb into it to show that a person of Phylicia’s size could fit. They wanted to show jurors that demonstration. But testimony on the issue has been confusing. Deena told police that a container was missing from her apartment, but later signed a statement saying she had been mistaken. Prosecutors have also said that Johnson was seen purchasing a container from a Wal-Mart that day, which hasn’t been part of testimony so far. Elvis Teah, the neighbor who said he saw Johnson moving a container, said the container in court was the same one that he saw on Dec. 28, 2010.

Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Goldberg said the replica container served a “demonstrative” purpose to help the jury, but Nance questioned how it could become evidence if it’s not the container in question.

His ruling: the container can become evidence only as an item delivered by Deena to police, but is not to be considered for any other purpose.


Feb. 1 1:11 pm
Justin Fenton

Neighbor testifies that he saw Johnson struggling to move plastic container

A neighbor of Michael Maurice Johnson testified Friday that on the day Phylicia Barnes went missing, he saw Johnson struggling to move a large container out of the apartment.

Elvis Teah said he passed Johnson while leaving his apartment the morning of Dec. 28, 2010 and noticed Johnson was “working hard” to move the container, and “was sweating a bit.” He said Johnson was moving the container one step at a time. Teah gave his information to police before he knew Phylicia was missing, when police asked him if he had seen anything unusual the day before, he testified.

On cross-examination, Teah said he didn’t know where Johnson was moving the container or what was inside of it. He also didn’t notice whether anyone was in the apartment. According to the prosecution timeline, Phylicia was killed sometime in the early afternoon, and defense attorney Ivan Bates later noted that Teah had said he saw Johnson moving the container in the morning.

Feb. 1 12:57 pm
Justin Fenton

“Purple Friday” even in the courtroom

The courtroom is not immune to Baltimore’s Super Bowl fever – almost everyone in the Judge Nance’s courtroom today is sporting purple, including the prosecutors, the defense attorneys, and the jury.

Assistant State’s Attorney Tonya LaPolla is wearing a purple dress; her colleague Lisa Goldberg has a maroon suit. Defense attorneys Ivan Bates, Tony Garcia and Russell Neverdon are all sporting purple ties, and Garcia has a light-purple shirt. About half the jurors are wearing purple, and at least two have Ravens sweatshirts on. One juror who has twice previously wore a Ray Lewis shirt is wearing purple attire. Many of the spectators are wearing purple as well, though the Barnes family has been wearing that color throughout trial – it was Phylicia’s favorite color.

Judge Nance himself is wearing a purple tie, and noticed the courtroom color scheme, briefly joking with one witness that he didn’t fit in.

Before you think the room looks like a Super Bowl pep rally, it doesn’t- there’s just a purple theme to the room.

One juror isn’t feeling it – he’s wearing a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt.

Jan. 31 11:55 pm
Justin Fenton

Cell phone tower data shows Johnson’s phone was off from 11:30-1 p.m. on Dec. 28; places him nowhere near Susquehanna

Friday’s print story outlines the phone conversations played for jurors, but also cell tower data presented that tracks Michael Maurice Johnson’s phone on the day Phylicia Barnes went missing.

Jan. 31 1:40 pm
Justin Fenton

Jurors hear Johnson’s wiretapped phone conversations, testimony about text messages

Fearing an investigation into the killing of Phylicia Barnes was bearing down on him, prosecutors say Michael Maurice Johnson told his girlfriend in October 2011 text messages that he contemplated fleeing the country.

“I feel like everything is about to hit the fan. I don’t know if I’m ready to deal with it,” he wrote in one message. “I still have options, not many, but I feel like I should pack up and leave. I don’t want to, but that’s how I feel. I mean leave this country, babe.”

The message was one of three phone communications from the fall of 2011 that police intercepted while wire-tapping Johnson’s phone. The text messages had already been produced by prosecutors at Johnson’s bail review hearing in April 2012, and his attorney said at the time that he was referring to feeling under pressure about the birth of a child he was not ready to take responsibility for. But in a previously undisclosed message read Wednesday, Johnson also tells his girlfriend that “you and [the child] won’t be able to go. You’ll have to stay here.”

Two phone calls were also played. In the first, from Oct. 19, 2011, Johnson calls his older brother and says police took DNA samples from him. Much of the call was unintelligible, but Johnson could be heard saying that he believed police “need more stability in the evidence,” and questioned what it would be used for. “What are they testing it against?” he said. “DNA from where?”

In the call, he and his brother can be heard discussing the possible charges he might face. “First degree is intent, with a plan,” he said.  He ends the call by telling his brother, “I ain’t goin down without a fight.” His brother responds, “You shouldn’t.”

The defense noted that after the call, state troopers asked a Harford County judge to continue the wiretap. “The goals of the investigation have not yet been met due to the suspect Johnson not making statements related to his participation in the crime, therefore there is a need for continued monitoring,” they read from a court document.

The second call, recorded Oct. 8, 2011, is between Johnson and his mother. She informs him that state troopers are bringing his brothers before a Harford County grand jury.

“It seems like they’re trying to clean up Baltimore City’s mess, to see if they can eliminate people,” his mother is heard saying.

Later, she says, “There’s no evidence against you, because you’re not guilty.”

“They’re trying to go forward with probable cause,” Johnson tells her.

“What’re you gonna do?” she asks.

“There’s nothing I can do,” he says, saying that investigators were trying to “get me on something.”

Defense attorney Tony Garcia asked Cpl. David Feltman, the lead state trooper on the case, whether Harford County authorities “decided there wasn’t enough to proceed” with the case after having presented evidence to the grand jury. Feltman answered yes, though that could be because authorities determined that the crime occurred in Baltimore City, giving Harford no jurisdiction. Prosecutors, however, didn’t clarify the comment.

Jan. 31 1:14 pm
Justin Fenton

Lead detective in Barnes case asked about his suspension from police force

After much pre-trial wrangling, defense attorneys today questioned Daniel Nicholson, the Baltimore Police Department’s lead detective in the Phylicia Barnes case, about his suspension from the force amid an investigation into whether he lied to fellow detectives regarding a search for his own missing daughter. Nicholson has not been charged in connection with the allegations, but nor has he been cleared. Defense attorneys want to show that Nicholson is not truthful and that charges against Michael Maurice Johnson – brought days after Nicholson’s suspension – were rushed due to concerns about how his troubles might impact the case. Prosecutors call the allegation baseless.

“You took it upon yourself to look for her?” defense attorney Ivan Bates asked Nicholson, regarding his daughter.

“Of course,” Nicholson said.

But when asked several follow-up questions, including whether he had lied to investigators or was being investigated for misusing department resources, Nicholson had the same answer: “I don’t know, sir.” He said he hasn’t been notified of any allegations.

“You’re a 19-year veteran, and you don’t know why you’re suspended for almost a year?” Bates asked.  An objection to the question was sustained.

Jan. 30 9:05 pm
Justin Fenton

Man testifies that he saw Phylicia’s body after being called by Johnson

Here’s our full story about the testimony of James McCray, which could be pivotal to the case by filling in gaps in the prosecution’s evidence or undermining the case they’ve built up thus far.

Jan. 30 1:49 pm
Justin Fenton

Medical examiner testifies about reaching “homicide” conclusion

The state’s first witness Wednesday was assistant state medical examiner Pamela E. Southall, who detailed how she reached the conclusion that Phylicia Barnes was asphyxiated and that the manner of death was homicide. Southall said an examination of the body didn’t reveal any sort of trauma, and that asphyxiation was essentially the default finding. Asphyxiation encompasses a few types of death – including suffocation, strangulation, drowning, and compression. Southall said she couldn’t be sure which of those Phylicia died from.

To make the finding of homicide, Southall said she relied heavily on police investigators and their theories of the case. “The suspicious nature could not be overlooked,” Southall said. “You can’t ignore that she’s 16 years old, visiting from out of state, and ups and disappears.”

Defense attorney Russell Neverdon pushed back, asking Southall why she ruled it a homicide when the lack of evidence opened up other possibilities, such as Phylicia drowning due to her own actions. “Is it possible to suppose she was alive at the time her body came into contact with the water?” Neverdon asked.

“I can’t rule that out,” Southall said.

She noted that 13 people in the state medical examiner’s office, including chief medical examiner David Fowler, agreed on her findings.

Assistant State’s Attorney Tonya LaPolla also put forward a theory that Phylicia was put into the water  inside a plastic container, allowing the body to be preserved for a time. Phylicia’s body was only moderately decomposed despite her having been dead for three to four months, in the estimation of a forensic anthropologist who testified later. Southall testified that that was possible, saying that she would have expected more damage to the body had it been loose in the water for so long.

Jan. 29 7:42 pm
Justin Fenton

Follow this link for complete coverage of Tuesday’s testimony, which included jurors hearing Michael Maurice Johnson describe to police on Dec. 31, 2010 what he says was his last interaction with Phylicia Barnes. Police also detailed their fruitless searches and growing concern of foul play.

Jan. 29 2:05 pm
Justin Fenton

Harford County grand jury testimony comes into play

Several times throughout testimony, prosecutors have made reference to witness testimony before a Harford County grand jury. Michael Johnson’s younger brother Glenton Michael, for example, testified before that grand jury in November 2011, and prosecutors brought out his testimony when they believed he had changed his story about whether he saw Michael Johnson moving things into an apartment the day of Phylicia’s disappearance.

Days after Phylicia went missing, Baltimore homicide detectives began investigating the case. But when her body was found four months later in the Susquehanna River in Harford, a city detective testified today, Maryland state troopers took control and city police effectively stopped investigating. Obviously, Johnson was indicted by a city grand jury in April 2012, so what are we to make of the Harford grand jury hearing extended testimony?

Andrew C. White, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice who is not involved in the case, said a murder charge can only be brought in the county the killing took place. Harford and Baltimore city grand juries could have been investigating the case at the same time, he added, which suggests “there certainly was some evidence that the murder didn’t happen in Baltimore City.”

“You can’t just convene a grand jury in Harford county for a crime that didn’t happen in Harford County,” he said.

But a likely reason no charges were brought there, White said, is that the evidence did ultimately point to Barnes’s murder happening in the city.

“The fact that they indicted it down here, it means conclusively you couldn’t have indicted it in Harford,” he said.

The grand jury can also be used to compel testimony from subpoenaed witnesses, White said, unless they can assert a fifth amendment reason to keep silent. And prosecutors can use grand juries to record testimony for later use, but White said there would be no tactical advantage to doing so in one Maryland county over another. Proceedings are secret, so it is unclear whether the Harford jury had reached any conclusion.

-Justin Fenton and Ian Duncan

Jan. 29 1:32 pm
Justin Fenton


The “tote”

One of the most oft-repeated words in the courtroom during court proceedings has been “tote.”

“Tote?” Judge Alfred Nance uttered more than a few times so far in the proceedings.

“T-o-t-e,” Assistant State’s Attorney Tonya LaPolla said today after one such question. “What I would call a plastic storage container.”

It’s what Deena Barnes and others used to describe a container that she said went missing from her Northwest Baltimore apartment and what prosecutors believe was used to get rid of Phylicia’s body. A similar container has made several appearances in court and used during testimony, though it has yet to be formally allowed into evidence because of defense objections centered on how prosecutors came to determine the size of the container in order to find a replica. At some point, prosecutors have indicated, they want to show that a body of Phylicia’s size could fit in the container.

[The picture above is a generic container similar to one that has been show in court and is not a picture of the container prosecutors are using.]

Testimony so far has been, for lack of a better word, confusing. Deena Barnes described to police a container that she said went missing from her apartment, but defense attorneys showed a statement she signed where she later took recanted and said she was confused. When Johnson arrived at Deena’s apartment the night Phylicia went missing, he had a plastic container in his car, though she said it was smaller than the one that was missing. Prosecutors also said in opening statement that Johnson bought a container from Wal-Mart. It’s unclear how these pieces fit together. Lt. William Simmons, a city homicide detective, says that from the earliest stages of the investigation, police were focused on finding such a “tote.”

Jan. 28 8:17 pm
Justin Fenton

Complete coverage of today’s proceedings

Here’s the full story about Deena Barnes’ testimony Monday, including a more complete timeline that emerged through her testimony and how attorneys continue to wrangle over whether prosecutors will be able to use a plastic container similar to the one they believe Johnson used to move Phylicia’s body. Her role in her sister’s rebellious behavior was examined in detail by both prosecutors and the defense.

Jan. 28 2:06 pm
Justin Fenton

Deena Barnes
Deena testifies about Johnson’s actions the day of Phylicia’s disappearance

Deena Barnes testified Monday that on Dec. 28, 2010, Michael Johnson sent her a text message asking if they could get back together. The couple’s relationship had been on the rocks for years, and took a turn after Phylicia’s June trip in which Deena says Michael made a move on the teenager. “It’s not too late to work things out,” it read. Deena said she did not respond.

Deena laid out the following sequence of events for the rest of the day:

-She left for work in the morning, with Johnson’s younger brother Dylane Davis asleep in her bed with Phylicia. Dylane Davis testified last week that Johnson showed up at the apartment and took him back to his house, saying that he did not have permission to be there.

-Later, Johnson tells Deena that “little sis” had woken up and asked if Dylane could come back over. Davis testified last week that he returned to the apartment around 1 or 2 p.m., which was empty. Loud music was playing, something the group did to ward off intruders if someone without a key was going to leave the door unlocked behind them.

-In the afternoon, Deena tries to call Johnson, whose phone is off and goes straight to voice mail. He later texts that his phone died and that Phylicia had fallen asleep again. “LOL,” the message reads.

-At 3:30 p.m., he phones Deena – in a call she described as “random” – and says he doesn’t feel like going to work that day. Johnson worked a 3 to 11 shift.

-Sometime 5 p.m., he texts Deena that “sis is up and active”

When Deena returned home from work and Phylicia was gone, she frantically called several people, including Johnson. He didn’t pick up, but texted that his phone was dying and that he was busy moving things. She asked him when was the last time he saw Phylicia, and he eventually responds around 8 p.m., saying that he saw her at 1:30 p.m. “Is everything OK?” he asks. When Deena says she’s going to call police, he says, “Keep me informed.”

Jan. 28 1:52 pm
Justin Fenton

Explicit video played for jurors; Deena Barnes says defendant made pass at Phylicia

Prosecutors played for the jurors a 16-minute video depicting Deena and Michael Johnson, and Phylicia and Johnson’s younger brother Glenton Michael Johnson kissing and “nakedly” touching after leaving a party on a dare that they go streaking together. Deena dabbed her eyes with a tissue, acknowledging that she allowed her teenage sister to become intoxicated that night.

Though prosecutors wanted the courtroom closed during the playing of the tape, Circuit Court Judge Alfred Nance earlier ruled that the court remain open. In an apparent compromise, the tape was played for jurors with the television screen turned away from spectators in the courtroom. Voices could be heard giggling and joking, followed by periods of silence where kissing noises were audible. At one point, the man filming on Deena’s cell phone remarks that he’s been “left out.” Prosecutors said in opening statements that Johnson can be seen looking at Phylicia while kissing Deena, though that could not be independently verified.

“Why did you allow your 16-year-old sister to participate in this video?” asked Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Goldberg. “Why?”

“There’s no reason,” Deena said.

“What were you thinking at the time?” Goldberg said. “I wasn’t,” Deena replied.

Back at the apartment, Deena testified that she saw Phylicia and Michael Johnson together in the bathroom, with Johnson tending to the girl’s knee. From the bedroom, Deena said she saw Johnson reach for the girl’s genitals. She laughed and pushed his hand away, Deena said. She testified that she found the interaction unnerving, and confronted Johnson about it.

“I asked him, did he just try to touch my sister. He said no,” Deena testified. She asked him again, then asked Phylicia about it.

Deena said she considered calling their father about it, but decided against it.

“I was scared,” she testified. “Scared of not being able to see Phylicia anymore, and my world crumbling. I thought she wouldn’t be able to come around anymore” if their dad found out what happened.

Jan. 28 11:51 am
Justin Fenton

Deena Barnes describes night of drinking, streaking

Deena Barnes, Phylicia’s older sister, testified Friday morning. She said she and Phylicia became “best friends” after starting a relationship via Facebook. She also spoke during her testimony about letting Phylicia Barnes try alcohol and attend a party where she got drunk and went streaking.

The prosecutors prepared play a video from that night, one which has been described as sexually charged and said to indicate a change in the relationship between Phylicia and her alleged killer. The courtroom remained open, but the TV wasn’t facing spectators.

Jan. 28 10:00 am
Justin Fenton

Deena Barnes, Phylicia’s older sister and defendant’s ex-girlfriend, may testify

Deena Barnes is in the courtroom this morning for day two of testimony and could be the state’s first witness. She is not alleged to have played a role in her sister’s death, but in opening statements prosecutors said her “permissive” supervision allowed her teenage sister to drink and party with adults, including her ex boyfriend and the suspect in the killing, Michael Johnson.

Prosecutors also just carried a blue plastic tub through the courtroom and put it on a bench outside. Judge Alfred Nance had previously ruled against the use of such an item in a demonstration that the state said would show how investigators believe Johnson transported Barnes’ body.

Jan. 25 7:42 pm
Justin Fenton

Tape shows accused killer’s desire for Barnes, prosecution says

Baltimore prosecutors on Friday said a sexually-charged video depicting teenage murder victim Phylicia Barnes and her alleged killer shows a turning point in the relationship that ultimately led to her death.

Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Goldberg also said in opening statements that a witness will testify that defendant Michael Maurice Johnson showed him Phylicia’s body after she died, in a plea for help. Defense lawyers said that witness is unreliable and shows that the state has a weak case.

Phylicia had connected over social media with her long-lost half-sisters and they quickly became close, Goldberg said. But one of those sisters, Deena Barnes, saw her more as an adult girlfriend than a teenaged little-sister, and during her trips from her home in North Carolina to Baltimore allowed her to indulge in alcohol.

Read the full story for Saturday’s paper here.

Jan. 25 6:19 pm
Justin Fenton

Radio link: January 2011 “Peas in their Pods” interview

During questioning of Bryan Barnes, Phylicia’s half-brother, defense attorneys questioned him about an interview he, Deena Barnes and Kelly Barnes conducted with an internet radio show about missing children. Attorney Tony Garcia raised questions about why Deena did not consent to answer questions, and asked Bryan Barnes whether Deena had stormed out on multiple occasions. Bryan said she had left multiple times, but did not know why.

Here’s the show in its entirety:

Listen to internet radio with PEAS IN THEIR PODS on Blog Talk Radio

Jan. 25 1:52 pm
Justin Fenton

Kelly Barnes is prosecution’s first witness

Prosecutors called Kelly Barnes, Phylicia’s other older half-sister, as their first witness following opening statements. She testified that Phylicia was seven years old when they first met, and Phylicia later reached out to her and Deena Barnes over Facebook. That began a series of visits to Baltimore to stay with her sisters, with whom she grew close.

“We were all sisters, we all have a part of each other,” she testified.

At first, Phylicia would stay at the apartment of Kelly, who lived by herself. They would watch television and talk, and Phylicia would go to work with her. But on subsequent trips, she stayed with Deena, who lived with Michael Johnson and one of Johnson’s cousins. Asked why Phylicia started staying with Deena, Kelly said, “My house might be boring.”

Kelly was supposed to pick up Phylicia on the day she vanished, but wasn’t able to reach her while on her way to the apartment and went home. Later, when they realized Phylicia was missing, she said a number of people went to Deena’s apartment. Johnson was among them, and Kelly testified that he sat on the couch and interacted little with the others.

“We were going over texts and who called and what she said,” Kelly testified. Then “we sat up and waited, hoping she would come through the door.”

Jan. 25 11:35 am
Justin Fenton

Defense says witness’s claim is invalid

Defense attorneys for Michael Maurice Johnson said prosecutors overreached in charging their client.

“This is not about sex, lies and videotape,” Russel Neverdon told the jury, referring to a tape of the defendant and victim engaged in a naked romp months before she was killed.

Neverdon said none of the hundreds of text messages Johnson exchanged with Barnes were inappropriate or suggestive, and that Johnson was seen moving things out of the apartment he shared with Barnes’ older sister because she had asked him to move out by the end if the year.

The witness who prosecutors say Johnson called for advice on moving the body is a “jailhouse snitch” who “can’t tell Michael Johnson from Michael Jordan,” Neverdon said. He also said there was no DNA evidence and that Barnes’ body showed no sign of injury.

Defense attorneys Ivan Bates and Russell Neverdon. (Justin Fenton/Baltimore Sun photo)

Jan. 25 11:22 am
Justin Fenton

Prosecution outlines case against Johnson in opening arguments

Prosecutors said permissiveness by Phylicia Barnes’ older sister allowed the teen to indulge in alcohol, leading to a drunken, naked romp with an older man that would lead to her death six months later.

In opening statements, Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Goldberg told jurors the night of June 13, 2010 was a “changing point” between Phylicia – a 16-year-old who lived in North Carolina and often visited older sister Deena -and Michael Maurice Johnson, a 28-year-old who had dated Deena for 10 years.

At a party, they went streaking, then went to a neighborhood school and filmed themselves “nakedly touching” each other. Goldberg said that while touching Deena, Johnson was looking at her younger sister, and in the ensuing months exchanged 1,300 text messages with her. Prosecutors plan to play the tape for the jury.

In a twist, prosecutors also disclosed that after Johnson’s April 2012 indictment, a petty thief named James McCray told investigators that Johnson called him to the apartment on the day Barnes was killed, showing him her body and asking for advice on what to do.

Prosecutors acknowledged that they don’t know how Johnson transported her body to the river 40 miles east of Baltimore where it was found, but say Johnson acted erratically that day, calling out of work and purchasing a plastic tub from a Wal-Mart that they believe he used to move the body.

Jan. 24 6:00 pm
Justin Fenton

Here’s the print story for tomorrow’s newspaper about Thursday’s court proceedings: In Barnes trial, defense questions detective’s search for daughter.

Opening statements are scheduled to begin Friday at 9:30 a.m.

Jan. 24 2:19 pm
Justin Fenton

Judge: Defense can question lead detective on “truthfulness” in misconduct investigation

Defense attorneys for the man accused of killing 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes will be allowed to quiz the lead detective in the case regarding his truthfulness when being questioned about a search he conducted for his own missing daughter last year, a judge ruled Thursday.

It was the first time officials have publicly discussed the accusations against Detective Daniel T. Nicholson IV, who was suspended by the department on April 23, 2012, after two people told police that he forced his way into their apartment while searching for 15-year-old daughter, who had run away from home. Two days later, prosecutors brought one count of first-degree murder against Michael Maurice Johnson, 28, who had long been considered a suspect. Nicholson has not been charged but the case is open and he remains suspended.

Defense attorney Ivan Bates filed a motion to “disqualify the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office because of the appearance of impropriety,” arguing 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 Circuit Court Judge Alfred Nance denied the motion.

But later in the same hearing, after prosecutors moved to prevent the defense from mentioning the case at all, Assistant State’s Attorney Tonya LaPolla said of the victims’ account that “what was described was breaking and entering and second-degree assault.” Bates also said that Janice Bledsoe, the former head of the state’s attorney’s police integrity division who left the office last summer, was prepared to testify that she recommended unspecified charges against Nicholson but that the office did not take action.

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 they pointed to the fact that he had not been charged and convicted to support their contention that the allegations should not be mentioned at Johnson’s trial – essentially what Bates had argued earlier.

“At the end of the day, these are mere accusations,” LaPolla said. “There’s been no finding in criminal court or within Baltimore Police administrative procedures,” LaPolla said.

As a matter of protocol, police do not pursue misconduct allegations administratively until prosecutors have decided what to do with a case.

Bates said Nicholson was not truthful during the investigation of the incident, and raised questions about whether he has a pattern of breaking the rules. According to information provided by prosecutors, 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 Nicholson denied doing so when questioned later. Nicholson also denied entering the Bowleys Lane apartment, though the victims picked him out of two photo lineups. Three people were present, according to the victims, one of whom Nicholson identified as his brother. But he has not identified the third person, Bates said.

Nicholson was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, and was one of three people who forced their way inside and held down the occupants as they searched for his daughter, Bates said. One of the victims said their phone was taken to prevent them from calling 911.

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 about whether he was truthful during the investigation into the alleged break-in, requiring 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.

Jan. 24 10:59 am
Justin Fenton

Jury selected in Barnes murder trial

A jury has been seated in the Phylicia Barnes murder trial, according to a court spokesman, but opening arguments are not expected until Friday morning. On Thursday, the court will instead hear arguments on motions.

Jan. 23 4:11 pm
Justin Fenton

Jury selection to continue Thursday in Barnes trial

Jury selection is expected to continue  Thursday in the trial of Michael Maurice Johnson, who faces one count of first-degree murder in the death of Phylicia Barnes. The courtroom remained closed to reporters Wednesday, the second day of proceedings, after Circuit Court Judge Alfred Nance said Tuesday there was not enough room for both prospective jurors and media. Johnson, 28, was charged in April 2012 with killing Barnes, a 16-year-old honors student from North Carolina who disappeared from her half-sister’s Northwest Baltimore apartment in December 2010. His attorneys say he is innocent.

Jan. 23 9:53 am
Justin Fenton

Video of Phylicia Barnes

As jury selection continues in the trial of Michael Maurice Johnson, here’s a video of Phylicia Barnes posted on YouTube in December 2011. Various pictures of Phylicia have appeared in the media since her disappearance in December 2010, but this offers more of a glimpse of the teenager’s personality as she fiddles with a webcam along with someone identified as a younger sister.


Jan. 22 7:39 pm
Justin Fenton

Experts: Excluding media from jury selection is improper

Two law professors said that Judge Alfred Nance’s decision to bar reporters from the courtroom during jury selection, which he said was due to space restrictions, was improper, saying Supreme Court has upheld that jury selection is an open process and that judges have to balance logistics with the public’s right of access.

“Once you get past the grand jury, once you get into the open court, everything is presumptively open, and that includes jury selection and voir dire,” said University of Baltimore professor Byron Warnken, who is not involved in the case. “I think the court has gone beyond its power. That’s clearly against the Supreme Court’s findings.”

Nance told The Sun that there were 200 potential jurors, and that there was seating in his courtroom for 125 people. “No one [else] could be in the courtroom, because there is no seating for anyone to sit in the courtroom,” Nance said.

Angelita Plemmer, a spokeswoman for the state judiciary, said late Tuesday that family members of the victim and defendant will be allowed to view the jury selection process, which is expected to be completed by Wednesday afternoon.

Andrew D. Levy, an attorney and professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, who is not involved in the case, said the judge could allow fewer jurors in the courtroom at a given time, to allow room for additional members of the general public and press.

“Judge Nance is attempting to, no doubt, deal with a case with some sensational aspects to it,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, and his primary obligation is to give the parties a fair trial. But he can’t do that at the total price of exclusion of the press and public. He has an obligation to consider less restrictive ways of dealing with it.”

Nance, known for a stern courtroom demeanor, has been criticized in the past for asking personal questions of potential jurors, including asking women their marital status and criticizing the way a prospective juror wore his yarmulke. In 2001, Nance was issued a rare public reprimand by the judicial disabilities commission for behaving in an “undignified” and “demanding” manner toward women.

Nance, 64, a former public defender who later founded a law firm, was appointed to the city Circuit Court by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1997. The next year, Nance won election to a 15-year term.

Related: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on access to jury selection and voir dire: “Trial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials” the Court stated

Jan. 22 12:22 pm
Justin Fenton

Prosecutors want to show how body could be stuffed into storage container

Prosecutors in the Phylicia Barnes murder trial plan to have a person of similar size and dimensions to the teenage victim climb into a plastic storage container, which they say is identical to the one they believe was used by Michael Maurice Johnson to move her body.

Judge Alfred Nance has tentatively told prosecutors that they can’t use the container in court, but said he could revisit the ruling.

The prosecution theory of how Phylicia was killed revolves around two witnesses who say they say saw Johnson struggling to move a plastic tub from a Northwest Baltimore apartment. Prosecutors have said that they believe Johnson was using the container to dispose of the 16-year-old’s body. According to the attorneys, prosecutors had a homicide detective named Ray Bennett, who is 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds, climb into a 35-gallon plastic tub to see whether such a move was possible.

Defense attorney Russell Neverdon challenged whether prosecutors should be allowed to use the container, arguing that if Phylicia’s body was indeed moved in a plastic container, it was never located. He argued that prosecutors inferred what type and size was used based on witness testimony, which they say was conflicting. “There is no evidence to identify a 35-gallon tote,” Neverdon said.

Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Goldberg said prosecutors have someone – who was not identified in court – ready to climb into a 35-gallon container for jurors “to demonstrate that someone who was 5-foot-9 and 120 pounds could fit inside.”

Nance said he “will not allow its use, but will entertain [the argument] at a later point in time.”


Jan. 22 11:39 am
Justin Fenton

Judge in Phylicia Barnes case restricts court access

UPDATE, 6:40 p.m.: Nance told The Sun that the court will be open to the public but that the media and families of the victim and defendant will have limited reserved seating. He also said jury selection will remain closed to reporters because “there was seating for 125 people and there are no seats for anyone else, period.”

Before proceedings got underway in the trial of Michael Maurice Johnson, Judge Alfred Nance issued a 27-point media and security directive that outlines a number of restrictions for reporters, including what kind of phone can be brought into the courthouse, how far away from the courtroom reporters must be if they use an approved phone, and what time each morning exhibits can be viewed. You can read the order here.

The courtroom was also closed to reporters for jury selection, which Nance expects could take two days due to prior publicity surrounding the case. Jury selection is an open process in Maryland courts, but Nance said there was not enough room in the courtroom for both the jury pool and the five reporters in the courtroom.

In contrast, retired Judge Dennis Sweeney, who is overseeing the trial of Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold, has allowed reporters to live-tweet the proceedings, and issued media directives months in advance.

Nance’s directive also holds that only credentialed media and members of the victim’s and defendant’s families are allowed to be in the courtroom. That may be in part because Nance refused a motion by the prosecution to close the courtroom when they play a videotape of the teenage victim Phylicia Barnes “engaged in sexual relations” with Johnson and her older half-sister.

Earlier, Nance held motions hearings on a date that was different from the one posted on the state’s court database, and issued a gag order to attorneys prohibiting them from speaking to reporters. It’s not clear if that gag order is still in place for attorneys.

Jan. 22 10:29 am
Ian Duncan

Trial in Phylicia Barnes case set to start

Michael Maurice Johnson is scheduled to stand trial starting Tuesday in the death of North Carolina teenager Phylicia Barnes, with court proceedings that could include prosecutors playing a sex video and defense attorneys revealing details from an internal affairs investigation of the lead detective in the case.

Barnes, 16, disappeared in late December 2010 while visiting her half-sister Deena Barnes in Baltimore. Her body was found four months later floating naked in the Susquehanna River.

The media attention Barnes’ case received had the paradoxical effect of stoking public debate about missing minority children typically receiving less attention than others. The case also sparked a push for new laws to help public agencies track missing children.

Now, Russell Barnes, Phylicia’s father, said that her family is girding for the trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

“We’re going to make sure we do all we can do to get justice for Phylicia,” he said. “I’ve been in contact with everybody; I haven’t taken my fingers off anything.”

Johnson, 28, was indicted on a single first-degree murder count in April 2012. Prosecutors said at a bail hearing that he asphyxiated Barnes in Deena Barnes’ apartment and moved her body in a 35-gallon plastic tub. Johnson has maintained his innocence.

Read more: Trial in Phylicia Barnes case set to start

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