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Trial begins for Baltimore man charged in death of N.C. teen

The judge overseeing the murder trial of Michael Maurice Johnson, the accused killer of North Carolina teenager Phylicia Barnes, decided Tuesday to ban witnesses from the courtroom when they are not testifying and, for now, prevent prosecutors from introducing a key piece of evidence.

Judge Alfred Nance said prosecutors cannot show how Johnson allegedly moved Barnes’ dead body. Prosecutors hoped to demonstrate that it would have been physically possible to fit Barnes’ corpse into a 35-gallon plastic container. The judge said he might allow the argument to be presented “at a later point in time.”

Defense attorney Russell Neverdon questioned both the existence of the container and the size of the person the state would use for its demonstration.

“There is no evidence to identify a 35-gallon tote,” said Neverdon, of The Law Office of Russell A. Neverdon Sr. in Baltimore. He said prosecutors are basing the type and size of the container on conflicting witness testimony.

Neverdon also objected that the state has, in the past, used a homicide detective who is 5 feet 6 and 150 pounds to demonstrate that such a move would be possible. Barnes was 5-9 and 120 pounds.

But Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Goldberg said prosecutors would use a person who was 5-9 and 120 pounds “to demonstrate that someone who was [that height and weight] could fit inside.”

Goldberg said prosecutors have a witness, whom she did not name, who will testify to seeing the defendant with the storage container and that a container matching that description is missing.

In response, Neverdon said one of the witnesses, Barnes’ half-sister Deena Barnes, has admitted to being mistaken about the size of the container, and in fact has said the container she thought was missing has been located.

After those rulings in Baltimore City Circuit Court, Nance closed the courtroom for jury selection, saying there was not enough space in the courtroom for the jurors and the five members of the media in attendance.

Jury selection in Maryland is generally open to the public.

Jacob S. Frenkel, a former prosecutor who is not affiliated with the case, said Tuesday that both the defense and prosecution will face challenges when it comes to picking a jury.

“It is against public conscience for someone accused of killing a teenager to be acquitted, so that is the pressure that the prosecutor will face,” Frenkel said. “And the defense attorneys must make sure that they can find jurors who will hold the prosecutors to the high burden of proof.”

Frenkel, an attorney at Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker P.A. of Potomac, emphasized that the mere fact that a case gets publicity does not automatically make it difficult to pick a jury.

Jury selection continues

Phylicia Barnes was 16 years old when she disappeared while visiting her half-sister in Baltimore in December 2010. The teen’s body was discovered in April 2011 floating in the Susquehanna River.

The intense publicity surrounding the case resulted in a public discussion about whether minority children who go missing receive less media coverage than their white counterparts.

Citing the Barnes case, Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a law making it mandatory for state authorities to compile lists of missing children and put together annual statistics.

Johnson, 28, was indicted on a first-degree murder charge in April 2012. He is accused of strangling Barnes in her half-sister’s apartment and using the plastic container to move her body. But Johnson, who dated Deena Barnes for about a decade, has said he is innocent.

His defense has claimed that Phylicia Barnes was reportedly seen in another county after she disappeared and after prosecutors say she was killed. According to court records, his attorneys plan on calling Robert Hickman Fields to testify to this effect.

In motions, Johnson’s attorneys have also attacked the credibility of Daniel Nicholson IV, the lead detective in the case.

Nicholson was suspended from the city police department in April for allegedly using improper strategies when investigating the disappearance of his own daughter, who later returned home.

Nicholson reportedly used his badge to conduct an off-duty search of a house where he thought his daughter was staying. At least one person who was in that house at the time claimed Nicholson assaulted them.

Nicholson has not been charged, and his lawyer has denied wrongdoing.

Attorneys involved in the case are unable to comment because a gag order has been issued.

Earlier this month, Nance ruled that prosecutors could introduce into evidence a sex tape that allegedly shows Barnes, Johnson and two others having sex.

Nance said he expects the jury will not be picked until Wednesday afternoon, according to Angelita Plemmer, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Judiciary. Nance predicted that opening statements would begin Thursday morning, Plemmer said.