Michael Maurice Johnson, 30, has been jailed since 2012 and was convicted of second-degree murder a year later for the teen's killing. Piecing together what they described as "circumstantial evidence," prosecutors alleged Johnson developed a questionable relationship with the teen — the younger half-sister of his longtime girlfriend — then killed her and dumped her body in the Susquehanna River.
Previously Judge Alfred J. Nance, who overturned Johnson's 2013 conviction, expressed "great concern" over the evidence in the case. On Tuesday Judge John Addison Howard, who declared a mistrial at a second trial last month, ruled prosecutors had presented insufficient evidence.
Howard's decision, delivered in a brief statement, led to Johnson's release from the Baltimore City Detention Center Tuesday evening.
"Michael Johnson has maintained his innocence from day one," said Katy O'Donnell, one of two attorneys from the public defender's office who represented Johnson. "We absolutely, firmly believe the court did the right thing and justice was done."
Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a statement that Howard had "no jurisdiction to grant the acquittal" and vowed to seek an appeal.
The decision was the latest twist in a case that saw a conviction overturned, a key witness discredited and, just last month, a mistrial because of a prosecutorial error.
Phylicia's father, Russell Barnes, said the judicial system let his daughter down. He said the process seemed to be in Johnson's favor, and claimed evidence he felt was important was never admitted.
"In my mind, the city of Baltimore has let a child predator go," Barnes said. "We still want justice for Phylicia."
Johnson's mother, Rhonda Mullins, was present in the courtroom Tuesday and called the case a "nightmare" for her family. Mullins, a retired city police officer, said her son's acquittal was "wonderful news."
At Tuesday's hearing, Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Goldberg told the judge all available evidence pointed to Johnson.
"We don't have a motive," Goldberg told Howard. "We don't need a motive. ... There is no boogeyman out there who took Phylicia Barnes. The circumstances point back to the defendant."
Phylicia was an honors student and athlete in North Carolina, where she lived with her mother. She had reconnected with her half-sisters over Facebook, and began making visits to Baltimore. She hoped to attend Towson University to be closer to them.
It was on a trip to visit her sisters during Christmas break that Phylicia vanished on December 28, 2010.
Prosecutors during both trials told jurors they believed Johnson had developed an inappropriate relationship with Phylicia, whom he called "lil' sis." They pointed to hundreds of text messages exchanged in the six months before her disappearance, though the content of the messages was never disclosed.
At a party in June 2010, prosecutors said, he and the teenage girl went streaking then, along with Johnson's younger brother and Phylicia's sister Deena Barnes, retreated to a field where a fifth person filmed the four engaged in "naked touching." That video was played for jurors at both trials, with prosecutors theorizing that it represented a turn in the brother/sister-like relationship.
Meanwhile, Johnson's 10-year relationship with Deena Barnes had been crumbling, according to prosecutors. Johnson had said that on the morning of the girl's disappearance, he had gone to Deena's apartment to gather some belongings to move out, and later called out of work.
"We have a defendant who just per chance takes the day off from work," Goldberg said Tuesday. "We have all these things that make you go 'Hmm.'"
A neighbor said he saw Johnson struggling to move a plastic storage container out of the apartment, and prosecutors alleged Phylicia's body was inside. Goldberg claimed Johnson showed little interest upon hearing the news that the girl was missing.
Defense attorneys said Johnson was cooperative with police and offered to help in the search until he was asked to stay away. Cell phone GPS records that trace his movements did not show him traveling anywhere near the Susquehanna in Harford County, where the teen's body was found in April 2011.
Investigators also tapped Johnson's phone for two months, during which time he discussed the case and speculated about police tactics, as well as fleeing the country. But he did not admit to the crime.
Johnson was indicted by a grand jury on charges of first-degree murder in April 2012.
Two months later, a petty thief named James McCray contacted police from a jail in Charles County and told them Johnson had called him for help the day of Phylicia's disappearance, saying he had raped and strangled her. McCray said Johnson summoned him to the apartment, where he saw Phylicia's body.
McCray had previously come forward as a witness in other high profile cases across the region, and contacted Baltimore investigators with information only after Johnson had been charged. Prosecutors said McCray had key details that he could not have gleaned from public accounts.
McCray testified at the first trial. But the judge determined prosecutors failed to tell defense attorneys information raising doubts about McCray's credibility.
Nance ordered a new trial, saying the state had to prove its case "not by speculation or assumption, but by evidence."
Prosecutors opted not to present McCray as a witness in last month's trial.
During the second trial, prosecutors played a wiretapped phone call between Johnson and one of his brothers. Howard ordered part of the tape redacted, and after a recess prosecutors said they had properly edited it. But when it was played, jurors again heard the portion Howard had ordered removed.
Howard, who said he did not believe the mistake was intentional, ordered a mistrial on Dec. 22.
Five jurors interviewed after the mistrial told The Baltimore Sun they would have voted to acquit Johnson based on the state's case. "The evidence wasn't there at all, to me," said juror Audra Agnelly.
In court Tuesday, O'Donnell and fellow defense attorney Kaye Beehler said they believed the failure to redact the tapes was intentional. Beehler alleged the state made the error hoping to prompt a new trial because they sensed it was "going down the tubes."
Goldberg called that claim "ludicrous."
Beehler argued that prosecutors couldn't even prove a crime had taken place or, if it had, what state it had occurred in. The Susquehanna River flows through New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
"There was insufficient evidence of where she died, how she died, and what manner she died," Beehler said.
Howard called the prosecution's case against Johnson "unarguably circumstantial" and said while it was intriguing, it contained "no direct evidence" linking him to Phylicia' killing.
"There was 'no smoking gun' in this case," Howard wrote.