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After conviction, judge orders new trial in Barnes murder

In what local criminal defense attorneys called a bold decision, a Baltimore judge has ordered a new trial for Michael Maurice Johnson, the man convicted last month of murdering North Carolina teenager Phylicia Barnes, because of an error prosecutors made after the verdict was in.

“Nine out of 10 judges wouldn’t come anywhere near granting this motion for a new trial because it is such a high-profile case, but I am not surprised that Judge [Alfred] Nance did,” said Warren A. Brown, an attorney at the Warren A. Brown Law Office in Baltimore who was not involved in the case.

By failing to provide information about a key witness in speedy manner, prosecutors violated the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brady v. Maryland, in which the court ruled that the government cannot withhold any evidence that would be helpful to the defense.

“Brady was severely violated,” Nance said Wednesday.

While it is rare for a court to grant a request for new trial based on Brady violations, Byron L. Warnken, an attorney and a longtime professor of criminal law at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said “it sounds like a new trial was in order” in this case.

“Prosecutors were placed on notice … and did nothing about it,” Warnken said.

Johnson’s attorneys said prosecutors waited roughly two weeks to provide information that the witness, jailhouse informant James McCray, had lied at trial about testifying in an unrelated Montgomery County case.

McCray’s credibility was key because he was the only person to testify that Johnson admitted killing Barnes and was also the only one to testify that he saw Barnes’ lifeless body at any point between December 2010 and April 2011.

 

After the verdict

Even though the information came to the attention of prosecutors a day after a jury reached its verdict, Nance said the delay was harmful because Johnson’s attorneys were under a strict timeline for filing post-trial motions.

The judge also noted that prosecutors failed to provide the defense with McCray’s complete criminal background and instead simply provided a handwritten record of the charges McCray faced.

The complete record shows that McCray was incarcerated in Baltimore County right around the time of Johnson’s arrest, in contradiction of the prosecution’s statements indicating that McCray’s only source of information about case was what Johnson had told him.

“The dots are now being connected that he was in Baltimore County” while the case was being highly publicized, Nance said.

Joseph Murtha, of Miller Murtha & Psoras LLC in Baltimore, said granting a new trial based on Brady violations was an “unusual remedy” for a judge to take.

But Murtha, a former prosecutor who was not involved in the matter, said the prosecutors in this case should have provided the defense attorneys with information about McCray’s complete criminal history.

“[There must be] complete disclosure of any available information on a witness,” Murtha said.

Defense attorneys Ivan J. Bates and Tony Garcia of Bates & Garcia LLC in Baltimore and Russell A. Neverdon of the Law Office of Russell A. Neverdon Sr. LLC in Baltimore said in an interview following the judge’s decision that Johnson was “pleased with the decision but realizes that the fight continues.”

They confirmed that Johnson cannot again face charges of first degree murder, which the jury cleared him of in last month’s trial.
Brown said that is a huge victory for Johnson.

“He is facing a maximum of 30 years instead of life,” Brown said. “The worst case scenario is a conviction on a lesser charge.”

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein’s office released an emailed statement following Wednesday’s ruling saying the state was “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.”

Russell Barnes, Phylicia’s father, said prosecutors had assured him that they are going to retry the case.
“It’s a setback,” he said. “We know the state has the correct man. We are going to stay focused and keep it moving. Our main goal is justice for Phylicia and justice must be served.”