A judge has dropped all murder charges against Michael Johnson (pictured) in Phylicia Barnes’ case, the Baltimore Sun reports.
Judge John Addison Howard acquitted Johnson of second-degree murder charges Tuesday, noting that prosecutors produced insufficient evidence against him.
The decision comes a month after Howard declared a mistrial in the case. That came about because prosecutors exposed jurors to information they were not supposed to see. Co-incidentally, prosecutorial misconduct caused another judge to overturn Howard’s conviction in 2013, arguing that prosecutors withheld crucial information about a questionable witness.
Consequently, officials released Johnson from the Baltimore City Detention Center Tuesday.
“Michael Johnson has maintained his innocence from Day 1,” said Katy O’ Donnell, one of two lawyers from the public defender’s office who represented Johnson. “We absolutely, firmly believe the court did the right thing and justice was done.”
However, Baltimore State Attorney Marilyn Mosby claimed the judge had “no jurisdiction” in freeing Johnson, promising an appeal.
In 2010, the 16-year-old Barnes (pictured) reconnected with her half-sisters in Baltimore and began visiting them. She vanished during a Christmas trip to see them that year.
Prosecutors allege that the 30-year-old Johnson had struck up an “inappropriate” bond with Barnes by this time. They noted text messages between the two in the six months before Barnes’ disappearance. Johnson also referred to Barnes as “lil sis,” they added.
As it happened, Johnson was also dating Deena Barnes, one of Barnes’ half-sisters. During a June 2010 party, Johnson, his brother, and both Barnes sisters engaged in a streaking act on a field, filmed by another accomplice. Prosecutors played the clip in court and referred to it as “naked touching.” They framed it as a transition in Johnson’s and Barnes’ brother-sister-esque bond.
On the morning Barnes disappeared, Johnson called out from work to remove his belongings from Deena’s apartment, as their relationship was deteriorating.
“We have a defendant who just per chance takes the day off from work,” said Lisa Goldberg, an assistant state attorney, Tuesday. “We have all these things that make you go ‘hmm.’”
Months later, Barnes’ body was found floating in the Susquehanna River. Officers arrested Johnson in 2012 in connection with the killing. Cell phone records did not trace him anywhere near the river at the time.
In his closing statements, Howard wrote that the prosecution’s evidence was “unarguably circumstantial,” saying they had “no direct evidence” connecting Johnson to Barnes’ death at all.