Trial in Phylicia Barnes murder case set to start

BALTIMORE - Jury selection will continue on Wednesday morning, in the trial of the man accused of killing Phylicia Barnes.  The North Carolina teenager disappeared during a visit to Baltimore back in 2010, and was eventually found murdered.

The state says 28-year-old Michael Maurice Johnson killed Barnes.

Timeline of Phylicia Barnes' disappearance

The visit to her half-sister in Baltimore was in December of 2010.  In April of 2011, after a massive search, Barnes' body was found in the Susquehanna River near the Conowingo Dam.  She had been strangled.

"There was certainly an opportunity to save her somewhere along the line. Even if it's proactively identifying a person or people who were dangerous to her," said Don Rondeau, a homeland security expert who helped coordinate that search.

He said he hopes prosecutors have gotten their man -- Michael Johnson is charged with first degree murder – but he'll let the jury decide.

He's focused on helping the Barnes family, and on implementing what's been called "Phylicia's Law," which mandates better cooperation among law enforcement agencies when a child goes missing in Maryland.

"One of the most important things that came out of this tragedy is the realization that people will come to the aid of another when our children are involved,"  Rondeau said.

The judge in Johnson's trial, Alfred Nance, has issued a gag order.

But ABC2 News interviewed Johnson's attorneys last month.

They spoke about a tape the prosecution plans to show in court, which they say shows Barnes involved in sexual acts with another teenager.

They say there is also a second couple engaging in sexual acts on the tape.  Johnson's attorneys say the tape benefits their client.

"It clearly is contradictory to the original statements or the position taken by the state at the bail review that Mr. Johnson made sexually inappropriate comments to Phylicia and almost apprehensive being around him. That's not what's depicted in this tape," said the attorney, Russell Neverdon, in an interview on Dec. 28.

The prosecution believes Johnson asphyxiated Barnes in her half-sister's apartment and then moved her body in a 35 gallon tub.

In the December interview, Johnson's attorney said that's simply not what happened.

"Our client stands very firm and adamant that he had nothing to do with her disappearance, nothing to do with her death, and wants to have his day in court."

Before jury selection started Tuesday morning, both sides argued two motions, one of which involved whether or not the prosecution could demonstrate how a person of Phylicia Barnes' size could fit in a 35-gallon tub.

Judge Nance ruled against it for now, but said he would entertain the argument again later in the trial.

What he was incredibly clear on was how the media was to cover this trial.

In addition to a strict gag order, the judge issued a nearly 30 point directive restricting reporters from using cell phones within 100 feet of his courtroom and only allowing "authorized" media to witness the trial.

While media is able to view evidence used in the case at the beginning of each court day and may involve the viewing of a sex tape which includes Barnes, reporters are not able to record or take pictures for broadcast or print.

Jury selection is expected to wrap up Wednesday, and then opening statements would begin tomorrow afternoon or on Thursday.


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