Baltimore judge acquits man accused of killing Phylicia Barnes

A Baltimore judge has acquitted the man accused of killing 16-year-old Barnes Phylicia in 2010, bringing an end to a high-profile case that spanned three trials.

Judge Charles J. Peters stated that the state’s circumstantial case against Maurice Michael Johnson, the last person known to have seen the honors student from North Carolina alive, had failed to establish motive.

In his judgment, Peters stated, ‘for any person responsible for determining the truth to ascertain his guilt without any doubts, there are excessively numerous inquiries that remain unanswered … The fundamental point is that.’

Johnson has been released since his second case was dismissed in 2015, and during his initial trial in 2013 was found guilty by a panel of jurors, serving approximately three years in prison. That decision was reversed, and he is currently 34 years of age.

After Friday’s ruling was read, Johnson hugged his defense attorney, assistant public defender Katy O’Donnell, who tearfully kissed him on the cheek.

O’Donnell stated outside the courthouse, “Throughout the entire duration, we have consistently maintained the absolute purity of Michael Johnson.” “The act of punishing an innocent individual does not equate to achieving justice for Phylicia Barnes; however, we deeply mourn for the Barnes family and this unfortunate event. … They are entitled to the tranquility that her family will attain, and eventually, the truth about what truly transpired with Phylicia Barnes will be uncovered. We remain optimistic.”

Johnson departed from the court without providing any comments, getting into a ready vehicle with a mobile phone pressed against his ear.

Barnes’ dad was not there when the verdict was announced and could not be contacted right away for a statement.

The identical outcome was achieved in a third trial that led to Johnson’s imprisonment after a prior judge dismissed the lawsuit in 2015, city prosecutors vigorously pursued a conviction, re-indicting Johnson. The lawsuit was appealed to the highest court in the state and the prosecutors emerged victorious.

The ruling on Friday is final and cannot be challenged.

State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby stated, “We remained steadfast in our quest for justice for the Barnes family and the unfortunate child who tragically lost her life. We were convinced, supported by the evidence provided to us, that we were seeking the person accountable for her homicide. However, the legal system has followed its usual procedure, and we must now honor the court’s ruling.”

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Johnson, who was in a relationship with Deena, Barnes’ older half-sister, was the main suspect according to everyone, but prosecutors have consistently argued that there is only circumstantial evidence. There was no concrete evidence linking Johnson to the death of the teenager. During the hearing, Peters repeatedly challenged the prosecutors regarding their case theory.

Prosecutors alleged that Phylicia Barnes’ younger brother, Deena Johnson, attempted to touch her inappropriately on the same night that he swatted away her hand. It was also revealed that Deena Johnson and Phylicia Barnes were filmed engaging in sexual activities in a sex tape that was made in June of the year before her death. Authorities theorized that Johnson developed an obsession with Barnes, as evidenced by the 1,200 text messages he sent between the two teenagers in the six months leading up to her death.

Prosecutors, who were cautious in their choice of words, argued that Johnson was “grooming” Barnes, but O’Donnell stated that none of Johnson’s interactions with Barnes could be interpreted as flirtatious. Furthermore, O’Donnell clarified that there were no messages of a sexual nature or with suggestive undertones shared between Johnson and Barnes.

Peters had a negative perspective of that proof of Johnson’s intention.

He stated, “You’re informing me that he’s fixated on her.” He mentioned, “Prior to her disappearance, he encounters her twice within a span of 11 days.”

Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Dunty argued that on both occasions, Johnson encountered the girl in the absence of any other individuals.

In his judgment, Peters stated that the “fixation hypothesis is not convincingly proven.”

Johnson contended that he had worked out and his cellphone was turned off when the alleged murder occurred during the period in December 2010. Prosecutors claimed that he waited alone with the girl in her apartment in Northwest Baltimore, and she was allegedly suffocated or strangled.

“Little sister is awake and energetic,” Johnson messaged Deena Barnes in the afternoon when the girl went missing.

Phylicia’s nude body was later found floating in the Susquehanna River, four months after authorities charted Johnson’s movements using his cellphone towers near any place he was connected to, whether it be the river or County Harford.

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The prosecutors believe that inside the large plastic storage bin, there was the body of a girl. The key evidence was an observation made by a neighbor who said he saw the struggling to move the bin on the day she disappeared.

O’Donnell said he stopped at Wal-Mart with someone he goes with regularly, and got food. He said his body was not moving items out of the apartment. After breaking up with Deena Barnes, whom he tried to reconcile with over text messages in the morning, Johnson had been moving out of the apartment.

Johnson was fixated on, but there were alternative hypotheses that could have elucidated what transpired or directed law enforcement towards fresh investigative avenues. The defense argued that the prosecution failed to substantiate the manner in which Phylicia Barnes met her demise, or the location of the murder itself. They contended that there existed alternative theories.

Deena Barnes stated that there was conflicting testimony about whether all the container storage had been accounted for. During the prosecution’s questioning, Peters mentioned that even the body of Barnes was allegedly moved to the container storage, but there was inconsistent evidence about whether this was true.

“Without the bag,” Peters stated, employing the phrase authorities have utilized to depict the container, “you have no argument.”

After the body of Phylicia was found, Johnson wondered whether DNA could have been found under the girl’s fingernails, saying that he was anticipating a possible result and coming up with an excuse of no recovered forensic evidence or DNA. Prosecutors said that Johnson had wrestled with the missing day she went, and he mentioned that he had been discussing the case with family members while his phone was wiretapped by the Maryland State Police.

He also mentioned escaping the nation.

I feel how leaving this country means, but I don’t want to say that he was recorded babe. I feel like I should pack up and leave, but I still don’t have many options. I don’t know if I’m ready to deal with it. I feel like everything is about to hit the fan.

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The defense attorneys said that nothing were those words more than him feeling the pressure of a police investigation focused wrongly on him.

O’Donnell praised the judges involved in Johnson’s trials, who stood up outside the courthouse and ensured true justice was done.

Johnson said he summoned him to the apartment on the day of Phylicia’s disappearance and saw her body. James McCray, a man named in Johnson’s indictment, came forward and testified, which may have been the key to Johnson’s first conviction.

Following his conviction, Johnson’s prior legal counsel did not receive the information that Montgomery County prosecutors had reservations about McCray and had not summoned him as a witness in one of their trials. Subsequently, doubts were raised about McCray’s reliability after it was disclosed that he had come forward in other instances without any supporting evidence. Montgomery County prosecutors notified Baltimore prosecutors of their concerns with McCray.

Judge Alfred Nance reversed the guilty verdict on the day Johnson was supposed to receive his sentence.

The prosecutors were unable to establish the case, as they were granted a motion for judgment of acquittal. However, Judge John Addison Howard, who presided over the second jury trial, declared a mistrial after reversing his initial ruling. This decision was made when the prosecutors played a segment of a tape that the jurors were not meant to listen to.

The third trial was remanded for a new hearing, resulting in the motion for acquittal being sent, which Howard agreed was beyond his jurisdiction to grant. The state’s highest court, to which prosecutors had appealed, dismissed the case once again. Howard referred to the new indictment. Johnson was indicted again, and Howard said that prosecutors had exceeded their authority.

O’Donnell suggested implementing these proactive affirmative measures to prevent innocent individuals from enduring years of imprisonment for crimes they are not guilty of.

O’Donnell stated earlier this week that he has submitted a notice of a $750,000 claim against one of the murder investigators who managed the investigation. With the criminal case now settled, Johnson may potentially reemerge in the civil court.

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