Baltimore man found guilty in Phylicia Barnes murder trial

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 6, 2013 

— A jury has found a Baltimore man guilty of second-degree murder in the 2010 death of Phylicia Barnes, the Monroe teenager whose disappearance and subsequent missing persons case sparked national headlines.

Barnes, an honor student at Union Academy, was visiting family in Maryland when she disappeared two years ago. Her body was found naked and floating in the Susquehanna River four months later. Her half-sister’s former boyfriend, Michael Johnson, was charged with her murder.

As the clerk read the verdict, Barnes’ mother, Janice Sallis-Mustafa, looked up and said, “Yes!”

Barnes’ father, Russell Barnes, hugged his relatives as they left the courtroom. “Now she can sleep,” he told them. “Now she can sleep.”

Sentencing will be handled on March 21. Johnson faces up to 30 years in jail, according to defense attorneys.

Asked about Michael Johnson’s reaction to the verdict, defense attorney Russell Neverdon said Johnson was in shock. The defense attorney recalled that when he asked his client in court how he was doing, Johnson replied: “I’m numb.”

The jury began deliberating Monday after a seven-day trial, and continued deliberations all day Tuesday. The judge sent jurors home for the night Tuesday after they requested a second viewing of two videos, including an explicit 16-minute video that showed Johnson and Barnes naked.

During the trial, 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 to suggest that Johnson, now 28, wanted to be more than just friends with Phylicia Barnes. They claim Johnson likely killed Barnes 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 suggested during the trial. 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 kill the teen.

Johnson’s attorneys argued prosecutors failed to present physical evidence, including DNA, proving Johnson killed Barnes.

But prosecutors urged jurors to look at the sum of evidence that they say points to Johnson, including testimony about the storage container and a 36-year-old thief’s testimony that Johnson confessed to him and asked for help in disposing of the body.

The defense team said it was “unequivocally” the testimony of that man, James McCray, that led to the conviction. They added that if he hadn’t been a witness there would have been a different outcome. They plan to appeal.

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