Jury begins weighing Phylicia Barnes murder case

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 5, 2013 

— In closing arguments Monday, defense attorneys criticized the prosecution’s case against Michael Johnson, arguing that it had presented no physical evidence to prove he killed Monroe teenager Phylicia Barnes.

“The who, what, when, where or why doesn’t make any sense,” defense attorney Tony Garcia told jurors.

Johnson is on trial for first-degree murder in the death of the 16-year-old honor student from Union Academy in Monroe. Her body was found naked and floating in the Susquehanna River four months after she disappeared on a visit to her older half-sister in December 2010.

Shortly after closing arguments Monday, the Baltimore jury deliberated for about two hours before the judge sent them home for the night. The jury of six men and six women can also choose to find Johnson guilty of second-degree murder.

Earlier Monday, prosecutor Tonya LaPolla urged jurors to look at the sum of evidence that she said pointed to Johnson.

She argued that he was the last person known to have been with Phylicia Barnes in her half-sister’s apartment and that he refused to help with the search when she first disappeared.

She noted testimony that Johnson was seen struggling to carry a heavy storage container from the apartment where Barnes had been before she disappeared. She said that Johnson had talked with friends and family about fleeing the country and confessed to a third person and asked for help in disposing of the body.

“She did not leave that apartment voluntarily,” LaPolla told the jurors. “She was murdered.”

But defense attorneys countered that the prosecution’s theory didn’t make sense and their evidence was entirely circumstantial.

Garcia said there was not enough time for Johnson to kill Barnes, clean the apartment of all forensic evidence and then disappear with Barnes’ body in the time frame that prosecutors claim.

He emphasized that there was no sign of a struggle and no DNA evidence linking Johnson to the crime. They described the state’s key witness, James McCray, currently being held for theft, as a “professional snitch.”

Barnes was a gifted student at Union Academy, a charter school in Monroe, when she disappeared while visiting her sister in Baltimore during Christmas break in 2010.

The seven-day trial has featured scandalous and difficult testimony for Barnes’ family, including a 16-minute explicit video that showed Johnson and Barnes naked.

Barnes’s half-sister Deena Barnes gave tearful testimony that she let Barnes drink alcohol, smoke marijuana and spend the night in rooms with boys.

She also testified Johnson had made a sexual advance toward the 16-year-old, including reaching for Phylicia’s genitals.

Prosecutors used the video and testimony as an example of how Johnson wanted to be more than just friends with Phylicia Barnes.

“We have a grown man thinking of a 16-year-old girl an awful lot,” said prosecutor Lisa Goldberg.

Prosecutors claim Johnson killed Phylicia Barnes likely after forcing himself on her in her half-sister’s apartment. He then used a large plastic storage container to hide and move the body, they theorized. A neighbor claimed to see Johnson struggling to carry a storage container, but did not see inside.

Defense attorneys said Johnson and Deena Barnes had recently broken up after a 10-year relationship. The containers were used to move out his things, they said. They said Johnson had no motive to murder Phylicia Barnes.

Defense Attorney Ivan Bates claimed Deena Barnes had a greater motive to hurt Phylicia Barnes after testimony from another sister who said Deena Barnes might have been jealous of the budding relationship between Johnson and Phylicia Barnes.

Defense Attorney Russell Neverdon agreed with prosecutors that Barnes was a special young girl, but said charging his client was not the right way to seek justice. He said the prosecution’s case was “riddled with misdirection.”

“The final analysis is we still don’t know how Phylicia Barnes died,” he said.

Phylicia Barnes’s father Russell Barnes said he’s looking for a little bit of closure for Barnes. He was hoping for a verdict on Monday, but said he’ll stay in Baltimore until the case is complete. Afterward, he said he hopes to take his family to the Susquehanna River to show their respects.

“We’re hanging in there,” he said. “We have to. … She’s my baby.”

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