Attorneys for the man convicted of killing 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes have asked a judge for a new trial, arguing that prosecutors made improper statements to the jury and withheld information.
Michael Maurice Johnson was convicted this month of second-degree murder in the death of Barnes, a North Carolina high school student, who was visiting relatives in Baltimore when she disappeared in December 2010.
Most of the arguments made by Johnson's attorneys center on a crucial witness named James McCray, who testified that Johnson contacted him for help in disposing of Barnes' body.
Defense attorneys Ivan Bates, Russell Neverdon and Tony Garcia say prosecutors tried to bolster McCray's credibility by making improper statements in closing arguments.
They say prosecutors withheld information about McCray being held in Baltimore County on felony charges that were dropped "mysteriously" the day after he spoke to investigators about Barnes' murder.
More broadly, they say the jury's verdict after two days of deliberations went against the weight of the evidence.
"The only evidence presented constituted a collaborative guess by multiple witnesses that the defendant was involved in the murder of Phylicia Barnes," they wrote in a motion for a new trial filed Friday. "The only actual connection between the defendant and the killing itself was one witness whose credibility falls well below that of which any reasonable person could believe was telling the truth."
Prosecutors declined Tuesday to address the defense allegations and said they would respond to the motion "in due course."
Circuit Judge Alfred Nance, who questioned the state's case during the trial but allowed it to go to the jury, could rule on the motion at sentencing, scheduled for March 20.
If the verdict stands, Johnson could be sentenced to 30 years in prison.
McCray, described as a petty thief by prosecutors and a jailhouse snitch by the defense, testified that he came forward to tell investigators about his role in the Barnes case after experiencing pangs of guilt while sitting in a jail cell, months after Johnson had been indicted.
McCray said Johnson, whom he vaguely knew through an underground business, told him he had strangled Phylicia after raping her, and that McCray told Johnson how he could evade detection.
But he also gave the wrong date of the crime and wrong floor for Johnson's apartment. And defense attorney's say the advice McCray allegedly gave Johnson contradicts the evidence: McCray testified that he told Johnson not to use anything from the house to move the body, but prosecutors say Johnson used a plastic container from the house.
McCray said he told Johnson to turn off his phone so it couldn't be tracked, but Johnson's phone remained on and cell tower data was presented to the jury.
Barnes' body was found in the Susquehanna River near the Conowingo Dam in April 2011, nearly four months after her disappearance.
The state argued that McCray's testimony could be believed because he knew certain facts — such as that Johnson referred to Barnes as "little sis" — that had not been released to the press.
Johnson's attorneys raised objections to those comments during the trial. Nance agreed and advised jurors to disregard them. But in their motion, the attorneys contend that the comments still made an impact.
The motion says prosecutors failed to tell the defense attorneys that McCray was incarcerated in Baltimore County at the time of Johnson's arrest and was able to see local news reports about the case. At trial, it was implied that McCray was being held in Charles County.
The motion alleges that felony charges against McCray in Baltimore County were "mysteriously dismissed the day after he gave an interview to Maryland state troopers regarding the defendant's case."
"The state strenuously argued throughout their case that Mr. McCray did not receive anything in exchange for his testimony and was … 'testifying to be a Good Samaritan,'" the defense motions says. "Evidence that Mr. McCray had seven charges dismissed against him by the neighboring jurisdiction's State's Attorney's Office the day after he spoke with officers regarding defendant's case would clearly have been useful in rebutting the state's argument that he did not in fact receive anything."
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