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Prosecutors in the Michael Johnson trial focused Wednesday on the police response to the disappearance of 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes, and the defense stressed what police didn’t do.
In another indication of how much time has passed since Barnes disappeared in 2010, Johnson’s first police interview, which was recorded on a cassette tape, was played for the judge.
Three days after Barnes vanished, Johnson had moved in with his mistress and moved out of the place he had rented on Eberle Drive with his girlfriend, Barnes’ sister, Deena Barnes, according to testimony from the retired city homicide detective who interviewed Johnson at police headquarters on New Year’s Eve 2010.
In the taped interview played in open court Wednesday, Johnson is heard saying that Phylicia Barnes liked staying at Eberle Drive because it’s “it’s kind of a free for all … (she could) smoke marijuana, drink alcohol.”
When he returned to do laundry on Dec. 28, 2010, Johnson said Phylicia Barnes was there, saying, “She was falling asleep on the couch. I checked the dryer (and) I left the apartment at 1:30.”
Prosecutors claim that makes Johnson the last person to see Phylicia Barnes alive.
Johnson’s defense argued that police blew any chance of finding the real killer when they bungled the case, and worked that same theme during cross-examination of another police witness. Detective William Wagner, from the Missing Persons Unit, admitted that it took four days to secure the scene and four days to conduct a foot search.
He said several tips were received saying that Phylicia Barnes was seen in the Park Heights area, but he never followed up, and after there was no sign of Phylicia Barnes for 24 hours, he broke the rules by not alerting Maryland State Police.
The Home Depot nearby had surveillance video, but Wagner said he sent someone else to check it out. He also admitted that he never got out of the car during his initial canvass of the apartment complex.
At that point, the judge interjected, saying, “Wait, because you said ‘canvass,’ you just drove through there looking for her? You weren’t actually speaking with people?”
“Correct,” Wagner said.
Medical examiner Dr. Pamela Southall, who conducted the autopsy on Phylicia Barnes, testified that she ruled the manner of death as a homicide based on the police investigation.
Southall said that, using process of elimination, she ruled the cause of death as asphyxia. She said she found no signs of drowning and no signs of strangulation or choking on food.
She also testified that the toxicology screening on Phylicia Barnes’ body turned up a small amount of alcohol. She said that could be because she either had a drink, because of the state of decomposition her body was in, or both.
Southall testified that Barnes’ body was “moderately decomposed,” which, in her opinion, matched the police theory that her body was in a container for some time.