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Md. top court: Man accused in Phylicia Barnes killing can be tried for third time

Phylicia Barnes

Phylicia Barnes

Prosecutors can proceed with a third trial against the Baltimore man accused of killing 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes, Maryland’s top court ruled Wednesday.

Michael Johnson was originally convicted of second-degree murder in 2013 but he was granted a new trial after a judge ruled prosecutors withheld evidence. Johnson’s second trial ended in a mistrial in December 2014, after which a judge acquitted Johnson. Prosecutors re-filed charges and appealed the judge’s ruling, arguing he did not have the authority to acquit following the mistrial.

The Court of Special Appeals agreed with prosecutors in June and ordered a new trial, a holding the Court of Appeals affirmed ruling Wednesday.

“We are pleased that the highest court of Maryland confirmed our legal right to retry Michael Johnson for the murder of Phylicia Barnes,” Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a prepared statement. “This unanimous decision further validates our unwavering pursuit of justice on behalf of Phylicia Barnes and her ones.”

Barnes, who was from North Carolina, went missing while visiting family in Baltimore in 2010 and her body was found in the Susquehanna River months later.

Calling the case “a saga,” retired Judge Lynne A. Battaglia wrote for the unanimous court rejecting the defense’s argument that double jeopardy principles were implicated. Baltimore City Circuit Judge John Addison Howard did not have the authority to grant an acquittal weeks after he had declared a mistrial and discharged the jury.

“The acquittal was granted, thus, not in the context of a mere procedural irregularity but in the circumstance in which the judge was totally without authority to act,” Battaglia wrote. “As a result, the federal Constitution and Maryland common law double jeopardy principles are not implicated, and Johnson may be retried.”

Johnson’s motion for judgment of acquittal was based on legally insufficient evidence and was not ruled on prior Howard granting Johnson’s motion for a mistrial and dismissing the jury, according to the opinion. Weeks after the case was rescheduled, Johnson filed a motion to dismiss the indictment based on double jeopardy.

Howard scheduled a hearing and also heard arguments about the sufficiency of the evidence at the conclusion of the state’s case. He struck his grant of a mistrial and dismissed the murder charge because he found insufficient evidence was presented at trial, treating the defense motion as a motion to reconsider its rulings.

After the state re-indicted Johnson, Howard dismissed the charges and said he was correcting “a procedural misstep” by retracting the mistrial and ruling on the motion for judgment of acquittal.

The state argued on appeal that Howard’s declaration of a mistrial and discharge of the jury terminated his authority over the case while Johnson contended that the court never lost “fundamental jurisdiction.”

While other states have provisions allowing a judge to wait to rule on an issue until after submission to the jury, Maryland does not, Battaglia wrote. The Court of Special Appeals has held that when a judge declares a mistrial and dismisses the jury, authority to take action in the case is lost.

The case is Michael M. Johnson v. State of Maryland, No. 38, Sept. Term 2016.

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