A Baltimore jury found Michael Maurice Johnson guilty of second-degree murder in the 2010 death of 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes, agreeing with prosecutors that the last known person to see the North Carolina teen alive was also her killer.
Johnson stood with his eyes closed as jurors read the verdict and did not appear to react. Jurors acquitted him on the initial charge of first-degree murder, but after almost two days of deliberating reached a unanimous verdict on second-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.
Family members said the decision brought closure in a case that began with a mysterious disappearance and developed into a high-profile search that drew attention to the issue of missing minority children. Barnes' nude body was found floating in the Susquehanna River four months after she went missing.
Though her mother, Janice Mustafa, said she could not find peace after losing her daughter, she was relieved by the verdict. "Now Simone can move on," she said, referring to Barnes by her middle name. "This is a great day. I can breathe now."
Lawyers on both sides acknowledged in closing arguments that the evidence against Johnson was circumstantial. Defense attorneys said investigators pieced together a theory without direct physical evidence, but prosecutors said the facts pointed to Johnson as the only reasonable suspect.
Police had considered Johnson, the longtime boyfriend of Barnes' older half-sister, to be a suspect from the beginning of the investigation after her disappearance on Dec. 28, 2010. But he was not charged until April 2012 — a year after her body was found.
On Friday, the judge overseeing the case, Alfred Nance, expressed "great concern" about the evidence in the case, and defense attorneys said they were stunned by the verdict.
Russell Neverdon said that the state's key witness lost all credibility on the stand and that the other evidence "just didn't add up." But Ivan Bates, another defense attorney, noted that the state had offered a plea deal that would've sent Johnson to prison for 50 years.
"In our mind, we've already won something," said Bates, who added that he believed Johnson has grounds for appeal.
Barnes, an honors student with a big smile, was an athlete at her private school in Monroe, N.C., where she was set to graduate a year early. But as police officials searched for her, they expressed frustration that her case wasn't garnering more national media coverage, and critics said it underscored a racial bias in missing-persons cases.
At trial, prosecutors Lisa Goldberg and Tonya LaPolla focused attention on lax supervision that allowed the precocious teen, whose trips to Baltimore came after she connected with older half-siblings via Facebook, to indulge in drugs and alcohol. During one night of partying, she went streaking with Johnson and took part in a sexually explicit video.
That 16-minute video, found on older sister Deena Barnes' phone, was played for jurors and became a centerpiece of the prosecutors' theory. The state argued that the tape showed a turning point in the relationship between Johnson and Phylicia Barnes, whom he had called "little sis." Over the next months, they exchanged more than 1,300 text messages, though the content of those messages is unknown and defense attorneys said that they were innocuous.
A neighbor testified that he saw Johnson struggling to carry a plastic storage container from the apartment where Barnes was staying on the day she disappeared. While he was in the process of moving out of the apartment because his relationship with Deena Barnes had ended, prosecutors argue that he killed Phylicia Barnes there and removed the body inside the container.
State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein cheered the verdict and said the trial demonstrated that his office will take on tough cases.
"This was a challenging case; this was a difficult case," Bernstein said. "This is why I ran for state's attorney — to bring these types of cases, and let the jury make its decision."
None of the phone records presented by prosecutors to map Johnson's movements could place him anywhere near the Susquehanna River, and though Barnes' death was ruled a homicide by asphyxiation, a medical examiner testified that the finding was based on a lack of other injuries and the suspicious circumstances of her disappearance.
Judge Nance, who will sentence Johnson March 20, called the state's case a "circumstantial theory" that it had to prove "not by speculation or assumption, but by evidence," and questioned the medical examiner's finding of homicide. His comments came after denying a motion by the defense to dismiss the case, determining that the jury should decide.
A key witness in the case was James McCray, who said that he advised Johnson about what to do with Barnes' body.
McCray, also known as James Lee, was brought to court from his jail cell in the Charles County courthouse where he is being held on unrelated charges. He said Johnson told him he raped Barnes and strangled her after she wouldn't stop crying.
Johnson's lawyers attacked McCray for incorrectly testifying what floor the apartment was on and what day the crime occurred. "You're not going to forget the date and time for something that significant in your life," Neverdon said Wednesday.