New trial to begin in Baltimore in killing of North Carolina teen

McClatchy Washington BureauApril 16, 2014 

— The family of slain North Carolina teenager Phylicia Barnes is bracing themselves for a second grueling trial more than a year after a Baltimore judge tossed out a murder conviction of the man known to have last seen her.

Michael Johnson, 30, will get another chance to plead his innocence starting April 28, when he’s scheduled to return to court to begin a new trial on second-degree murder charges for the death of the 16-year-old honor student from Monroe, near Charlotte.

The case has been postponed before and might be again. Johnson received new lawyers, public defenders, in February and they might seek more time to study the case. Calls to the attorneys were not returned.

Phylicia Barnes’ father, Russell Barnes, plans to travel to Baltimore on Tuesday in anticipation of the trial and meet with prosecutors.

“It’s been a journey,” Russell Barnes said. “It’s been a journey.”

He is disappointed with the judge’s decision granting a new trial. Barnes called it a “technicality.” But he takes some comfort knowing Johnson remains in custody.

“He’s not going anywhere. He’s not going to get out,” Russell Barnes said. “They know they have the right person.”

Last year, Baltimore Circuit Judge Alfred Nance threw out Johnson’s conviction on the second-degree murder charge, ruling that prosecutors withheld information from the defense about a key witness during the initial trial. Johnson’s attorneys said prosecutors waited weeks to provide information that jailhouse information James McCray had lied about testifying in another unrelated case. McCray was the only person to testify that Johnson had said he killed Barnes.

Phylicia Barnes was to have graduated from Union Academy Charter School in Monroe but disappeared in December 2010 on a visit to her older half-sister in Baltimore. The search stoked a national debate about whether missing minority children receive less attention from the police and the press. Her body was found naked and floating in the Susquehanna River near the Conowingo Dam in Maryland four months later. Johnson, who dated Phylicia’s half-sister Deena Barnes, was the last person known to have seen Phylicia.

As with the first trial, Russell Barnes plans to be in the courtroom every day. It will not be easy.

The first trial lasted seven days. It featured scandalous and difficult testimony, including a 16-minute explicit video that showed Johnson and Barnes naked. Deena Barnes gave tearful testimony that she let Barnes drink alcohol, smoke marijuana and spend the night in rooms with boys. Deena Barnes also testified Johnson had made a sexual advance toward the 16-year-old, including reaching for Phylicia’s genitals.

Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for the Office of the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, declined to discuss an ongoing case. But he confirmed that it would be prosecuted by Assistant State’s Attorneys Lisa Goldberg and Tonya LaPolla, who also prosecuted the first trial.

The Barnes family is hosting an online vigil on Tuesday encouraging friends and family to wear purple, Phylicia’s favorite color, in her honor.

Email: fordonez@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @francoordonez.

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