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Suspect in Phylicia Barnes's death gets new trial

Phylicia Barnes
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Phylicia Barnes

BALTIMORE This story was originally published on March 21, 2014.

A judge in Baltimore on Wednesday ordered a new trial for Michael Maurice Johnson, who had been convicted last month of killing Monroe teen Phylicia Barnes.

The judge’s ruling was a surprise, as it came during a sentencing hearing for Johnson, who faced up to 30 years in prison on a February conviction of second-degree murder.

Circuit Court Judge Alfred Nance ruled that Johnson’s defense team was not provided information prosecutors had obtained until after the conviction. That information centered on the reliability of James McCray, a key prosecution witness in the case.

Prosecutors said they plan to re-try Johnson.

Barnes, 16, a senior at Union Academy, had been visiting her half sister in Baltimore when she disappeared in December 2010. Her body was found in April 2011, floating in the Susquehanna River about 50 miles from where she was last seen.

During the trial, McCray testified that Johnson had called him on the day Barnes disappeared and had told him he killed the Monroe teen after having sex with her.

On Wednesday, the judge ruled that prosecutors were too slow in providing Johnson’s attorneys with information about McCray’s involvement in another Maryland case. Johnson’s defense team alleged Wednesday that the information, which they said they received after the conviction, could prove that McCray is not a reliable witness.

Johnson was charged with first-degree murder in April 2012 after a lengthy investigation that involved local, state and federal authorities. Johnson, who had been dating Barnes’ half sister Deena but was in the process of ending that relationship, had been in the apartment with Phylicia Barnes on the day she disappeared.

Prosecutors said during the trial that Johnson had sent Phylicia Barnes hundreds of text messages in the months before she visited her half sister during the Christmas holidays in 2010.

Johnson’s attorneys, Russell Neverdon and Ivan Bates, asked the judge Wednesday for a new trial. They alleged that prosecutors failed to provide the defense team with a complete record of McCray’s arrests. They also said the state had failed to tell the jury that seven charges against McCray had been dropped on the day after he spoke to prosecutors about the Johnson case.

After the judge’s decision was announced Wednesday, Johnson’s attorneys said their client cannot be tried again for first-degree murder, because the jury acquitted him of that charge when it found him guilty last month of second-degree murder.

State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein said Wednesday afternoon that prosecutors “are disappointed in the judge’s decision.”

“But we look forward to the new trial, in which we will be able to present the evidence and testimony we believe establishes the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Bernstein added.

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