City prosecutors have filed notice that they intend to play at trial a video that depicts teenage slaying victim
The court filing in the high-profile case — a motion to close the courtroom when the video is played — marks the first time prosecutors have publicly linked a video to Barnes and the alleged killer. Last year, federal authorities filed search warrant applications describing a "child pornography" investigation, while seeking access to the Facebook pages and email addresses of Barnes, 16, and at least three other people, according to court documents.
It is not clear how the video relates to the murder charge against Michael Maurice Johnson, the 28-year-old ex-boyfriend of Barnes' 29-year-old half sister, Deena Barnes. Prosecutors do not comment on pending cases, but they wrote in the motion that it will be played during Deena Barnes' testimony.
The video was "recorded and stored" on Deena Barnes' phone and is more than 16 minutes long, prosecutors wrote in the motion. Prosecutors asked to close the courtroom because two of the people who appear in the video are minors.
"The state does not wish to maintain the closure of the courtroom for questions asked to Deena Barnes subsequent to the video," prosecutors wrote.
Contacted Friday, the husband of Phylicia Barnes' mother, Janice Mustafa, declined to comment. Her father, Russell Barnes, said he was not aware of the video and also declined to comment, except to say, "We're just staying focused."
One of Johnson's attorneys, Ivan Bates, said the defense will challenge the prosecutors' motion to close the courtroom, adding that the "community has the right to able to see any and all evidence." Though the state will introduce the video, Bates said it also is relevant to Johnson's defense because it will "show the relationships between all of the individuals in that moment in time."
Russell Neverdon, another attorney for the defense, noted that prosecutors have said Phylicia Barnes told others she felt "uncomfortable" around Johnson. "This is to the contrary," he said.
The motion is the latest in the lead-up to Johnson's trial, scheduled for late January. Both sides are expected to argue the motions in a Jan. 8 hearing.
Johnson is accused of asphyxiating Barnes, then moving her body after placing it in a 35-gallon plastic tub. A neighbor, prosecutors said in court this summer, saw Johnson sweating and struggling to move a tub out of Deena Barnes' Northwest Baltimore apartment.
Phylicia Barnes, who was from Monroe, N.C., went missing in late December 2010 while visiting her older sisters. She planned to go to college here after graduating early from high school, where she was an honors student and ran track. Authorities said she vanished without a trace. After a widely publicized search that drew national media attention, her nude body was found floating in the Susquehanna River in April 2011.
In May of that year, federal authorities filed documents — apparently in error and later sealed — that showed they were seeking access to two Yahoo email accounts and one AOL email account that include Phylicia Barnes' first name, along with her Facebook page, records show.
Earlier this month, defense attorneys signaled that they wanted to see internal police records related to the lead Baltimore police detective in the case, Daniel Nicholson IV. Nicholson was suspended by the department the day before Johnson was indicted, amid questions about a search he conducted for his missing teenage daughter.
Defense attorneys argued that the records may "clarify the possible connection between the detective's suspension and Mr. Johnson's hasty indictment." They added that the search for his daughter and the tactics used to investigate Barnes' disappearance could "show the pattern of misconduct Detective Nicholson uses in cases such as these."
City prosecutors have not filed charges or cleared Nicholson in regard to that investigation. Through an attorney, Nicholson has denied wrongdoing, and the city police union has supported him, saying he did what any concerned father would have done. His attorney, Matthew Fraling, said Nicholson did nothing inappropriate and called the accusations contained in the defense motion "absolutely ludicrous."
The defense also filed notice that it intends to call as a witness a man named Robert Hickman Fields, who told police during the investigation that he had seen Phylicia Barnes alive in Cecil County after she was reported missing.
In a response filed last week, prosecutors argue that Fields should not be allowed to testify, accusing the defense of a "purposeful delay in order to obtain an advantage by not providing sufficient time for the state to investigate this witness and the information he provided."
"One month is not sufficient time to adequately investigate this witness as well as review the dozens of phone records, thousands of documents, and numerous witnesses to determine what, if any connection this witness has to the defendant," prosecutors wrote. "That is particularly true in light of the fact that this witness called in to the 'tip line' and gave different information to the police than he appears to be giving in the transcript provided to the state."