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Prosecutors defend verdict in teen’s murder

Prosecutors admit they presented new evidence during closing arguments in the case of murdered North Carolina teenager Phylicia Barnes, but say their “isolated comments” are not a reason to grant Michael Maurice Johnson’s request for a new trial, because they were simply responding to arguments made by defense attorneys.

“Regardless of whether these isolated comments during rebuttal argument were improper or factually accurate, defense counsel’s own improper arguments and reference to alleged facts not in evidence makes the state’s response an invalid ground for a new trial,” Assistant State’s Attorneys Lisa Goldberg and Tonya LaPolla wrote in their response to Johnson’s motion for a new trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

The prosecutors also said that “whatever minor errors the court may find — and the state would submit that there are none — are of insufficient value in light of the overwhelming evidence of [Johnson’s] guilt to justify the granting of a new trial.”

During closing arguments, LaPolla urged jury members to view a key witness, James McCray, as credible in part because he had knowledge of events that had not been publicly available. McCray is a convicted thief who told the jury that Johnson called him for help after Johnson killed Barnes.

Defense attorneys objected to the comments, and presiding Judge Alfred Nance sustained their objection. Nance also instructed the jury to disregard the prosecutors’ statement and told the jury to make its decision “based on the evidence that’s produced.”

Goldberg and LaPolla said those “curative actions alone were more than sufficient to cure any prejudice.”

Johnson was convicted on Feb. 7. In their motion for new trial filed Feb. 15, Johnson’s attorneys, Ivan J. Bates and Russell A. Neverdon, had said the evidence constituted “a collaborative guess by multiple witnesses” that Johnson was involved in Barnes’ murder.

In their response, filed Friday, Goldberg and LaPolla acknowledged that much of the evidence was circumstantial, but said it was “perfectly capable of supporting a verdict and can be as powerful as direct evidence.”

Nance said during the trial that the highly circumstantial nature of the prosecution’s case caused him “great concern.” But Goldberg and LaPolla emphasized in Friday’s filing that a trial judge is “not at liberty to set aside a verdict of guilt and to grant a new trial merely because [Nance] would have reached a result different from that of the jury’s.”

“[I]t should not be forgotten that a jury of his peers was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Johnson murdered Phylicia Barnes,” the prosecutors wrote.

Bates, of Bates & Garcia LLP, and Neverdon, of the Law Offices of Russell A. Neverdon, also accused the prosecution of creating a “‘string’ of dependent factors which, if all were believed to be credible, constituted the “best guess” of who committed the crime in this case. They said the only actual connection between Johnson and the killing itself was “one witness whose credibility falls well below that of which any reasonable person could believe was telling the truth.”

Bates and Neverdon were referring to McCray. But Goldberg and LaPolla said their case was not based exclusively on McCray’s testimony. Rather, they said they presented a “chain of evidence that links [Johnson] as the murderer of Phylicia Barnes.”