Father of Phylicia Barnes endures accused killer's trial

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 1, 2013 

— The father of slain Monroe teenager Phylicia Barnes says sitting through the salacious trial of the man accused of murdering her has been challenging.

No father wants details of his daughter’s drug use aired in public. Or, worse yet, to suffer through the playing of a video with nudity that included her.

But that’s been Russell Barnes’ heartache to carry through the first five days of testimony in the trial of Michael Johnson, the man charged with murder in the 16-year-old honor student’s death two years ago.

“It’s been beyond tough,” Barnes told the Observer outside the courtroom Thursday. “It’s ridiculous. But we’re here for Phylicia.”

An honor student at Union Academy Charter School in Monroe, Barnes’ disappearance in December 2010 captured national attention, kindling debate about whether or why other missing minority children receive less attention from the police and the press.

She was to graduate that spring. She planned to attend college at Towson University, just north of Baltimore.

Barnes had recently reconnected with her father’s side of the family in Baltimore via Facebook – and disappeared when she went to visit.

Authorities say Johnson, 28, was the last person to see Barnes alive at her half sister Deena Barnes’ northwest Baltimore apartment.

Her nude body was found four months later in the Susquehanna River.

Johnson was arrested in April. He is charged with first-degree murder but maintains his innocence.

Deena Barnes tearfully told the court Monday how she had allowed her younger sister to drink alcohol, smoke marijuana, and sleep in rooms with boys. The 16-minute video of a sexual nature that included Barnes and Johnson was captured on Deena Barnes’ phone. It was played for jurors, but with the screen turned away from Phylicia’s relatives.

Johnson had dated Deena Barnes but reportedly was ending the relationship at the time.

Deena Barnes testified Johnson had made sexual advances on Phylicia before, including reaching for the high school senior’s genitals. Barnes said she didn’t tell her father because she feared he’d stop Phylicia from visiting.

Testimony key to prosecution

Because of the lack of physical evidence tying Johnson to the murder, the case could hinge on the testimony of, as the defense describes him, a “jail house snitch.”

James McCray, currently being held for theft, testified this week that Johnson showed him Phylicia Barnes’ body wrapped in a bedsheet and asked for his help disposing of her body. McCray said he told Johnson to dump the body in water to eliminate evidence of sexual contact.

The defense says McCray is an unreliable witness and points out that he has happened to testify for the prosecution in other high-profile trials.

On the fifth day of testimony, the prosecution continued its case against Johnson by calling expert witnesses who mapped the locations of Barnes’ and Johnson’s cellphones during the hours after her disappearance. They introduced into evidence text messages from Johnson to his girlfriend and his brother in which Johnson allegedly contemplates leaving the country.

“I wonder if I go there and start a new life there and become wanted here would they be able to arrest me there,” Johnson wrote in a message to his brother.

His brother responded: “You would have to see what countries extradite.”

The defense spent much of the afternoon seeking to cast doubt in the minds of jurors. They read from court documents quoting state troopers who sought longer wiretaps “due to the suspect Johnson not making statements related to his participation in the crime.”

They questioned Daniel Nicholson, the Baltimore Police Department’s lead detective in the case, about his suspension from the force amid an investigation into allegations that he used his position with the department to investigate the disappearance of his own daughter.

His daughter later was found unharmed.

Students at Union Academy in Monroe have followed the case closely. During the months between Phylicia Barnes’ disappearance and the discovery of her body, students held several vigils and often wore purple, her favorite color.

Russell Barnes noted the support of her classmates and people throughout the Charlotte area as crucial to helping keep the investigation alive.

He would not talk about the case or Johnson but indicated he was relieved the trial was under way. He recalled the two months that he moved to Baltimore to help out with the search for his daughter. He said the trial was a result of the hard work of law enforcement officers and supporters.

“We’re here,” he said.

He took a deep breath and turned toward the courtroom. The jurors were back from their break.

The Baltimore Sun contributed to this report.

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