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Retrial in death of Phylicia Barnes postponed until October

Michael Maurice Johnson must wait at least four more months for his second trial on charges that he killed North Carolina teenager Phylicia Barnes.

With jury selection scheduled to start Tuesday in Baltimore City Circuit Court, Judge Alfred Nance instead granted a joint motion for postponement until Oct. 1. Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Goldberg said the state had a scheduling conflict, and Johnson’s only remaining attorney said he needs more time to prepare.

Johnson’s attorneys Ivan J. Bates and Tony N. Garcia of Bates & Garcia LLC in Baltimore were also given permission to withdraw from the case at the hearing.

His remaining lawyer, Russell A. Neverdon, of the Law Office of Russell A. Neverdon Sr. LLC in Baltimore, said after the hearing that he is hoping to find other attorneys to assist him in the case. He confirmed he is representing Johnson pro bono.

Warren A. Brown, of the Warren A. Brown Law Office in Baltimore, said Tuesday he was not surprised Bates and Garcia asked to be removed.

“They are not going to get any money out of it, and it is old news,” said Brown, who is not involved in the case. “It’s not going to be followed with the same fervor, so the possibility of publicity is less. … The case’s luster is diminished.”

Being involved in such a high-profile case, especially for a second time, can have “a significant deleterious impact in the short run on the business.”

“Clients know that you are tied up in the case and you have to get other attorneys to cover your other cases,” he said.

A. Dwight Pettit, of the Law Offices of A. Dwight Pettit P.A. in Baltimore, said he faced a similar situation when he defended Robert Perry on a pro bono basis more than 30 years ago. Perry was accused of shooting a union president and union official. A jury could not reach a verdict after a three-week trial, and Pettit said he received permission to withdraw from the case’s second trial.

“I was in a pitiful situation, and the court understood that,” said Pettit, who is also not involved in the Johnson case. “Whatever money I had, I paid for my experts, etc., and I couldn’t afford to do it a second time. People need to be paid, and a murder trial is a lot of work.”

A jury convicted Johnson in February of second-degree murder. However, Nance granted Johnson’s motion for a new trial in March. The judge said that, by failing to provide information about a key witness in speedy manner, prosecutors violated Brady v. Maryland, the 1963 decision in which the Supreme Court said the government cannot withhold any evidence that would be helpful to the defense.

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

Prosecutors said they did not receive that information until the day after the jury convicted Johnson, but Nance ruled that the Brady obligation was still in place because Johnson’s attorneys were under a strict timeline for filing post-trial motions.

McCray’s credibility was important 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 at any point between her disappearance and April 2011, when her body was discovered in the Susquehanna River.

Barnes went missing while visiting her half-sister, Deena Barnes, in Baltimore on Dec. 28, 2010.

Johnson was indicted on a first-degree murder charge in April 2012. He was accused of asphyxiating the teen in her half-sister’s apartment and using a plastic container to move her body.

During the first trial, defense attorneys highlighted the lack of direct evidence linking Johnson to the crime and also attacked the credibility of Daniel Nicholson IV, the lead detective in the case.

Nicholson was suspended from the city police department pending an investigation into allegations that he used improper strategies when looking into the disappearance of his own daughter, who later returned home. He 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 accused Nicholson of assault.

Nicholson was charged last month with two counts of second-degree assault, one count of fourth-degree burglary and one count of making a false statement to police.

His attorney, Matthew B. Fraling III of Harris Jones & Malone LLC in Baltimore, said the charges against the detective are “spurious.”