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Michael Johnson

Other Baltimore City Exonerations with Official Misconduct
Sometime during the day of December 28, 2010, 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes, an honors student from Monroe, North Carolina, left the home of her older half-sister in Baltimore, Maryland and never returned.

The disappearance triggered a prolonged series of massive, intensive searches. On April 20, 2011, Phylicia’s naked body was found floating near the Conowingo Dam in the Susquehanna River.

A year later, on April 25, 2012, police arrested 28-year-old Michael Johnson. Johnson was the boyfriend of Phylicia’s older half-sister, Deena, and had been the primary suspect since shortly after Phylicia disappeared. He was charged with first-degree murder.

Johnson went to trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court in January 2013. No physical evidence linked him to the crime. The prosecution contended that Johnson sexually assaulted Phylicia, strangled her, and then removed her from the residence in a plastic tub, which he dumped in the river. The defense contended that Johnson was moving his belongings out of the apartment because he and Deena had broken up.

A neighbor testified to seeing Johnson struggling to remove a plastic tub from Deena’s apartment on the same day Phylicia disappeared. The jury was shown a tub similar to the one the neighbor claimed to have seen, and the prosecution argued that Phylicia could have fit into such a container.

Dr. Pamela Southall, who conducted the autopsy, testified that cause of death was asphyxia, which could mean suffocation, smothering, strangulation, and other forms of oxygen deprivation, including drowning. She said it was also possible that Phylicia died from hypothermia.

The jury also saw a video showing Deena, Phylicia, Johnson, Johnson’s younger brother, and others streaking and engaging in naked touching in June 2010 during a previous visit by Phylicia. Deena Barnes admitted that she had given her younger sister alcohol and that they were both intoxicated on the video. She said that when she later saw Johnson make a sexual advance toward Phylicia, she confronted them and they both brushed her off.

The prosecution also presented evidence that Johnson and Phylicia exchanged about 1,300 text messages between June and December 2010, when she returned for another visit.

The most critical witness was James McCray, who was incarcerated on several different charges, including theft. McCray, who came forward only after the media reported Johnson’s arrest, testified that Johnson had called him for help in disposing of Phylicia’s body. McCray told the jury that Johnson said he had sexually assaulted her and when she wouldn’t stop crying, he strangled her.

McCray said, “I was close and he needed assistance real quick. He had an ex-girlfriend at the home so he had to make the moves real quick.”

McCray said he told Johnson to turn off his cell phone to make sure his whereabouts could not be tracked, and to dump the body into water so that DNA evidence would be destroyed.

During cross-examination, McCray said he believed the murder occurred before Christmas. Phylicia, however, disappeared three days after Christmas. And he couldn’t remember the correct floor the apartment was located—even though it was a basement apartment.

The defense noted that police were never able to find any evidence that McCray and Johnson had ever met, or that any number in Johnson’s cell phone records was linked to McCray. In addition, evidence showed that Phylicia stopped using social media about 12:30 p.m. and that cell phone records showed that Johnson’s cell phone pinged off a tower several miles away about 1:28 p.m. That left an almost impossibly narrow window of time for Johnson to have sexually assaulted her, killed her, summoned McCray, devised the plan to get rid of the body, and then cleaned up before driving 15 to 20 minutes to the location where the cell phone pinged.

Johnson, who did not testify at the trial, had said in his interview with police that he left the apartment to take belongings to his new apartment and that Phylicia was asleep.

On February 6, 2013, after two days of deliberation, the jury acquitted Johnson of first-degree murder and convicted him of second-degree murder.

Johnson was not sentenced, however. On March 20, 2013, Circuit Judge Alfred Nance vacated Johnson’s conviction because the prosecution had failed to disclose to defense lawyers evidence that strongly cast doubt on McCray’s credibility.

During the trial, the prosecution said that McCray had been jailed in Charles County and did not have access to media accounts. After the verdict, however, the defense learned that McCray had been detained for a time in Baltimore County, where he did have access to media accounts of Phylicia’s disappearance and Johnson’s arrest.

McCray had testified that he had been a witness in two other trials. But the day after Johnson was convicted, prosecutors in Montgomery County contacted the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office to report that there were serious concerns about McCray’s credibility and that as a result, he had not testified in one of those trials.

The prosecution waited two weeks after learning this information to notify Johnson’s attorneys—past the 10-day cutoff for the defense to file a motion for a new trial. The prosecution also disclosed for the first time that the day after McCray’s first interview with police, some of the charges against him were dropped—even though McCray had testified that he received no benefits for coming forward.

Although the prosecutors contended they waited because they were researching the validity of the report from Montgomery County, Judge Nance said that “by withholding it from the defendant during a critical time period after the verdict, the state in essence suppressed the information.” The judge characterized the prosecution’s failure as a “severe” violation and that absent McCray’s testimony, he would have granted a defense motion to acquit Johnson.

Jury selection for a retrial began in December 2014, but Judge John Addison Howard granted a motion for a mistrial after the defense argued that the prosecution had twice exposed jurors to evidence that was not supposed to be presented at the trial—a portion of a recording of a telephone call between Johnson and one of his brothers—because it was not redacted as the judge had instructed.

On January 20, 2015, Judge Howard granted a defense motion for an acquittal because the prosecution’s evidence was insufficient to convict. Johnson was then released.

The prosecution then re-indicted Johnson. The defense filed a motion to dismiss the case on the basis of double jeopardy. Judge Howard granted that motion. The prosecution then appealed. In June 2016, a three-judge panel of the Court of Special Appeals overturned Howard’s ruling and ordered a new trial. In April 2017, the Maryland Supreme Court upheld that decision, setting the stage for yet another trial for Johnson.

In March 2018, Johnson, defended by assistant public defenders Katy C. O’Donnell, Karyn A. Meriwether, and Brandon T. Taylor, went to trial once again and chose to have his case decided by a judge without a jury. The prosecution did not call McCray as a witness at this trial.

On March 30, 2018, after four weeks of trial, the defense asked Judge Charles Peters to grant a motion to acquit Johnson. During arguments that lasted two days, Peters repeatedly questioned the prosecution about the lack of evidence overall. Among his pointed questions, he noted the lack of any proof that Johnson ever was near the Susquehanna River.

“Is there any evidence of the defendant going at or near the Susquehanna River?” Peters asked prosecutor Michael Dunty.

“No,” Dunty said.

“How did the body get there?” Peters asked.

“I don’t have an answer for the court,” Dunty replied.

Peters granted the defense motion and acquitted Johnson. “The bottom line is that there are far, far too many questions left unanswered…for any fact-finder to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” the judge said.

As Johnson left the courthouse, defense attorney O’Donnell said, “We grieve for the Barnes family and this tragedy, but convicting an innocent man is not justice for Phylicia Barnes…We hope that one day, what really happened to Phylicia Barnes will be discovered and her family will get the peace they deserve.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/21/2018
Last Updated: 5/2/2022
County:Baltimore City
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2010
Sentence:Not sentenced
Age at the date of reported crime:26
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No