Johnson to get new trial in killing of Phylicia Barnes

Judge throws out conviction, says prosecutors withheld information

March 20, 2013|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

A Baltimore judge threw out the murder conviction of a man who was to be sentenced Wednesday in the killing of 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes, saying prosecutors withheld information about a key witness from defense attorneys.

The second-degree murder conviction of Michael Maurice Johnson, 29, last month had appeared to close the case of the North Carolina girl who disappeared while visiting family in Baltimore in 2010. But Circuit Judge Alfred Nance's ruling will give Johnson another chance to plead his innocence.

Prosecutors said they were "disappointed" in the ruling but planned to retry the case. Barnes' father expressed confidence that Johnson would be convicted again.

Defense attorneys, who had requested a new trial, said the ruling would help them present a more complete rebuttal of the state's case.

Nance's decision turned on the testimony of James McCray, who said he saw Barnes' body after Johnson asked him for help in disposing it. His was the only testimony that linked Johnson directly to a murder scene. The defense questioned McCray's credibility, deriding him at trial as a "jailhouse snitch."

Prosecutors had said that McCray was incarcerated in Charles County and did not have access to media accounts of the Barnes trial, but the defense team later learned that he had been detained in Baltimore County for a time. That was one of several details Nance said the defense should have disclosed.

"This court notes that while defendant is not guaranteed a perfect trial, he is guaranteed a fair trial, and these violations amount to a failure to meet that standard," the judge said in a written opinion.

McCray also testified that he had been a witness in two other trials. But the day after the verdict was handed down in the Barnes killing, prosecutors in Montgomery County contacted the Baltimore state's attorney's office about McCray's role as a potential witness in a separate murder case.

One county officer's notes raised concerns about McCray's credibility, though a later prosecution response argued that other area investigators had vouched for the witness. Ultimately, he did not testify in the Montgomery County murder trial.

City prosecutors took two weeks to notify the defense of the new information — outside the 10-day window for the defense to request a new trial — but said they did so because they were researching the validity of the new claim. Nance said that "by withholding it from the defendant during a critical time period after the verdict, the state in essence suppressed the information."

After the judge's ruling, defense attorney Ivan Bates said, "It's important that everyone play by the same set of rules, and the state got its hand caught in the cookie jar."

Barnes' disappearance and her family's desperate search for clues became one of the highest-profile missing persons cases in recent years, drawing broad attention to the issue of missing children.

Johnson has been held without bail since his arrest in April. He was not released Wednesday, but his attorneys said they might petition for his release on bond. Because the jury acquitted him of first-degree murder, they believe he cannot face that charge again.

Russell Barnes, Phylicia's father, said the family was not upset by the judge's ruling. "It's a setback," he said. "We know the state has the right person, no ifs, ands or buts about it."

After being convicted after a 12-day trial last month, Johnson could have been sentenced to 30 years in prison. He had dated Barnes' elder sister Deena for years, and prosecutors alleged that he had grown inappropriately close to the teen in the months preceding her death.

Though they could not explain how Barnes' body was found months later floating in the Susquehanna River, prosecutors said circumstantial evidence pointed to Johnson's guilt. That included Johnson's having called out of work the day of the girl's disappearance and his being seen by a neighbor struggling to move a plastic tub that prosecutors believe contained her body.

The judge had said during the trial that the prosecution's theory of the killing had caused him "great concern" and that the circumstantial evidence gave added importance to McCray's testimony, which was direct.

McCray testified that he knew Johnson through an under-the-table vehicle tag business he ran, and that Johnson had told him he had raped the girl and killed her because she would not stop crying. He said he advised Johnson how to elude police detection.

McCray testified that while reading the Bible one night, he felt compelled by his guilt to come forward with the information. That occurred months after Johnson was indicted.

Prosecutors asserted Wednesday that the totality of the evidence was strong. "The jury heard all the testimony, and their verdict is correct," Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Goldberg told Nance. "It would be a miscarriage of justice not to let this verdict stand."

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