BALTIMORE Phylicia Barnes mother stared down at the courtroom bench in front of her Wednesday as she listened for the verdict.
When the clerk read that the jury had found Michael Johnson, 29, guilty of second-degree murder in the death of her 16-year-old daughter, Janice Sallis-Mustafa raised her head and whispered: Yes!
It marked the end of a painful ordeal for her family, which was plunged into grief two years ago when the Monroe honor student disappeared during a visit with relatives in Baltimore. Her nude body was found floating in the Susquehanna River four months later.
Phylicias father, Russell Barnes, walked out of the courtroom with a stream of family members. Tears were in his eyes.
Now she can sleep. Now she can sleep, he cried out as he embraced Phylicias aunts and uncles.
The Baltimore jury of six men and six women deliberated Johnsons fate over the course of three days before finding him not guilty of the more serious charge of first-degree murder but convicting him of second-degree murder.
He faces up to 30 years in prison, according to defense attorneys. He is scheduled to be sentenced March 21.
Im numb, Johnson told his attorney, Russell Neverdon, who asked if he was OK before he was led away.
The verdict capped more than a week of salacious trial developments that included more than 30 witnesses and a 16-minute video of a sexual nature involving Phylicia. Her older half sister, Deena Barnes, who dated Johnson for 10 years, tearfully admitted allowing her to drink alcohol, smoke marijuana and sleep in rooms with boys.
Prosecutors called to the stand a convicted criminal defense attorneys called him a professional snitch who said he saw Phylicias body and told Johnson how to dispose of the corpse without leaving any physical evidence.
The jury found Johnson guilty despite a lack of physical evidence presented by prosecutors. During the trial, Circuit Court Judge Alfred Nance expressed concern that the states case was based on circumstantial evidence but allowed it to continue.
Outside the courthouse, Johnsons father, Glenton Johnson, said he was very disappointed.
It is what it is, he said. We still feel in our hearts that Michael Johnson is not guilty.
The disappearance of Phylicia Barnes, an honor student from Union Academy in Monroe, in December 2010 captured national attention, sparking debate about whether or why other missing minority children receive less attention from the police and the press.
Police called it the Baltimore Natalie Holloway case, a reference to the white Alabama high school student who caused a media sensation when she disappeared during a school graduation trip to Aruba.
Barnes was scheduled to graduate a year early. She had a stack of acceptance letters to college, according to prosecutors. She planned to attend college at Towson University, just north of Baltimore.
She had recently reconnected with her fathers side of the family in Baltimore via Facebook and disappeared when she went to visit during Christmas break. Johnson was the last person known to have seen Barnes in her half sisters apartment. Prosecutors argued Barnes never left the apartment alive.
They suggested Johnson wanted to be more than just friends with the teen, and they showed jurors a video depicting her, Johnson and two of their siblings naked and kissing. They believe Johnson killed Barnes after a likely sexual encounter had gone bad.
He then stuffed her body into a plastic storage container and then hid the body until he could dump her in the river. One of their witnesses, James McCray, who is currently in jail, testified that Johnson called him for help disposing of the body.
She did not leave that apartment voluntarily, prosecutor Tonya LaPolla told jurors during closing arguments. She was murdered.
Defense attorneys countered that the state had no proof that Johnson committed the crime. There was no physical evidence on her body, no sign of struggle in the apartment, and no cellphone records or any other evidence that proved Johnson was near the river where Barnes body was found.
Defense attorney Ivan Bates said he plans to appeal the verdict. He accused prosecutors of presenting facts during closing arguments that were not previously presented to the jury.
He said it was without a doubt McCrays testimony that led to the conviction. He described McCray as a professional snitch who lacked any credibility.
Phylicia Barnes disappearance and death have been tough for students and teachers at Union Academy, said Joe Delaney, the schools headmaster.
The reaction here is not (of) relief, but theres just a real sense of Well, I hope this gives people some peace more than anything else, he said.
Russell Barnes emphasized the family continues to think of Phylicias friends, classmates and teachers in North Carolina.
He said he wanted a first-degree murder conviction but added that the family is ecstatic with the guilty verdict against Johnson. He said justice was served and this will provide a sense of closure for him and the family.
Now she can sleep, he told the Observer. We got him. The murderer is going away.
Staff writer April Bethea contributed.