BALTIMORE - The day after his 29th birthday, Michael Johnson walked out of Courthouse East facing up to 30 years in prison…now convicted for the second degree murder of Phylicia Barnes.
"Justice is served, Phylicia can sleep now. She's in a much better place. We the family, we're going to hold on, we're going to pull our pieces together and we're gonna keep moving on," said father Russell Barnes.
But before they move on, they reflect outside the courthouse; prayers answered, closure in hand, Phylicia's mother still trying to process this morning's end to such a long and painful story.
"I can't tell, I really don't know. Well, [it feels like] the elephant took one foot off my chest so I can breathe a little bit now," said Janice Mustafa.
The smile that crept on her face as she said those words was almost as telling as the stone cold look on Michael Johnson's family, obviously disappointed in this morning's verdict and still believing in his innocence.
"It is what it is and we still feel in our hearts that Michael Johnson is not guilty," said father Glenton Johnson Sr.
Two families once so close to one another, connected by the decade long high school sweet heart relationship between Phylicia's older sister Deena Barnes and Michael Johnson, today on the same courthouse steps on the opposite ends of murder verdict.
After going into day three with deliberations, the jury convicted Michael Johnson for the second degree murder of Phylicia Barnes.
Outside the courthouse, a grateful father Russell Barnes thanked city state's attorney Gregg Bernstein.
"We really want to thank you, thank the state for their pressure and everything they've done,” Barnes said.
Because as the Barnes' family sees it, the state just put away the man they truly believe killed Phylicia and dumped her body in the Susquehanna.
Johnson can get up to thirty years but was spared life.
The jury found him not guilty of the original charge of first degree murder.
To the state's own admission, it’s the case against Johnson was largely circumstantial and felt toward the end, the jury may have needed the lesser charge of second degree murder to consider.
"We often bring cases in which we charge first and second degree murder and juries evaluate the evidence and make a determination as to what they think is the appropriate result. We are very satisfied with the murder in this case," said Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein.
The defense understandably is not satisfied.
It believed all along the state never had the evidence linking Johnson to the murder or disposing of Phylicia's body.
All it had was a theory about blue totes and text messages; one the defense didn't think the jury would buy if not for the testimony of James McCray or Lee.
McCray is the convicted criminal the state called who testified he saw the body of Phylicia Barnes in Johnson's apartment, said Johnson admitted to raping the teen and then asked how to get rid of the body.
It was a story the defense still believes is too inconsistent to be believed and conveniently closed the gap on what was lacking in the state’s theory.
McCray was a late addition in the state's case contacting police from jail four months after it had already indicted Johnson.
"August 2012,” said Johnson’s defense attorney Ivan Bates. [So if he doesn't do that and the state moves forward with the case without McCray, do we have a different outcome today?] Without a doubt. Without a doubt. Because if you look, the state had so many holes in the case. If you sat there they had so many problems. To this day the state can still not tell you how her body ever ended up in Harford County."
But the jury found the state's argument and perhaps McCray’s testimony believable enough.
Michael Johnson is due to be sentenced on March 20th.
In the meantime, his defense team says to expect an appeal or a motion for a new trial.
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