Courts & Crime

Retrial underway in murder of N.C. student Phylicia Barnes

A second trial of the man accused of killing 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes, an honor-roll student from Monroe, N.C., is underway, but prosecutors say they won’t call a jailhouse informant whose involvement in the first trial got the guilty verdict overturned.

Michael Maurice Johnson, 30, is back in court for second-degree murder. He was the former longtime boyfriend of Phylicia’s sister, Deena Barnes, and had been in the process of moving his belongings out of the apartment he’d shared with her when Phylicia disappeared from it on Dec. 28, 2010.

Johnson, wearing a gray suit with a white shirt and tie, was brought to the court Wednesday in handcuffs and his feet bound with a chain. After police removed the restraints, he sat with his attorneys in the courtroom, often leaning forward in his chair to listen or to read documents.

Johnson has been in prison since he was arrested in April 2012, a year after Phylicia’s body was found. He was the last known person to see her alive. Her body was found four months later about 40 miles away in the Susquehanna River.

A jury convicted him of second-degree murder in February 2013. In that trial, jailhouse informant James McCray said he had seen Barnes’ body after Johnson asked him to help dispose of it. He was the only witness who linked Johnson to the murder scene.

But the judge overseeing that trial, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Alfred Nance, overturned the conviction a month later, saying prosecutors had withheld information about McCray from the defense. They weren’t told that McCray had been held in a detention facility in Baltimore County, raising a question of whether he could have heard about the case on the news, and that a charge against him was dismissed a day after he spoke to a police detective investigating Phylicia’s death.

Prosecutors indicated when Johnson’s new trial began on Dec. 5 before Circuit Judge John Addison Howard that they wouldn’t call on McCray to testify.

Phylicia was an honor student and and athlete on the track team at Union Academy, a charter school in Monroe, where she lived with her mother. In 2009 she had connected with her two adult half-sisters in Baltimore on Facebook, and was visiting them over Christmas break when she disappeared.

On Wednesday, prosecutors played a tape of an interview police did with Johnson on Dec. 31, 2010, a few days after Phylicia disappeared. He was not a suspect at the time, and Baltimore Police Detective David McDermott, who conducted the interview, testified in court that Johnson agreed to be interviewed voluntarily and was calm and cooperative.

On the tape, Johnson said that Phylicia had visited Deena Barnes and him before, in December 2009 and during the summer of 2010. He said she liked to be with them because there were “no real adults restricting you,” and that she drank alcohol and smoked marijuana. He said he called Phylicia “lil sis.”

He also told police that he had called Phylicia two times in the previous six months and had texted her about three or four times a day. He said that on the day she disappeared he was at the apartment watching TV with her, getting some of his belongings together and doing laundry. He said he last saw her asleep on the couch when he left at 1:30 p.m.

Johnson also told police in the interview about what he did that afternoon after he left the apartment. The Baltimore Sun reported earlier in thr week that a cell phone mapping expert said the path shown by his phone matched with what he said.

Phylicia had been scheduled to fly home on Jan. 2 to return to school and graduate, a year ahead of schedule, and then attend Towson University, near Baltimore. Hundreds of volunteers joined a search that made national news. Fliers wither her picture were passed around, and billboards about her went up along I-95. A segment on the “Today” show appealed for tips.

Her body was found nearly four months after she disappeared, floating in the river in a wooded area near the Conowingo Dam and hydroelectric power plant not far from the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. Her death was ruled a homicide by asphyxiation. A medical examiner earlier testified that the finding was based on a lack of other injuries and the suspicious circumstances of her disappearance.

Prosecutors earlier pointed to previous testimony of a neighbor who saw Johnson struggling to move a container out of the apartment. But they have not shown evidence that Johnson went to the Susquehanna River.

John Shumway, an FBI expert on computer forensics, said his analysis of the laptop Phylicia was using showed she was doing nearly constant instant messaging from about 10 to 11:30 a.m. The few that were described during the court hearing were not about Johnson. Around 11:30 a.m. she said in a posting that she was hungry.

Her last activity on Facebook was about 12:30 p.m.

It’s not known if defense lawyers will call witnesses after the prosecution is finished. Lawyers are under a gag order. One court observer said it’s unclear how much longer the trial will go on, but it’s possible that it will continue after the holidays in January.