Monday, April 30, 2012

The Phylicia Barnes Case: A Questionable Start for the Defense and Prosecution

Kudos to The Baltimore Sun for reporting the conflict of interest that Mead, Flynn, & Gray, a criminal defense law firm, got itself into in the high-profile Phylicia Barnes murder case.

According to The Sun, the firm represents Daniel Nicholson IV, a city detective who is currently under investigation for misconduct and was also charged with assault in Baltimore County last year.  He happens to be the lead detective who investigated the disappearance and murder of Phylicia Barnes.  Nicholson's credibility in the Barnes case will be at issue every step of the way.

Yet when Michael Johnson was recently arrested for the murder of Barnes, there was Mead, Flynn & Gray, challenging the police evidence and arguing that Johnson be released on bail.  It's a blatant lapse of ethical judgment.  Perhaps the publicity and money to be earned from the case blinded the firm's attorneys to their higher duty.

The Sun wasn't blind.  And when asked about it, Johnson's other attorney, Russell Neverdon, suggested that Mead, Flynn & Gray will not participate in future proceedings.   It's a no-brainer that shouldn't even have come up. 

The prosecution isn't putting its best foot forward, either.  For some reason State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein has entrusted this case to one of his least effective trial attorneys, one who has long lacked a reputation for hard work.  

It's the same prosecutor who lost the case against Eric Stennett for murdering Police Officer Kevon Gavin in 2001.  After fleeing the scene of a shooting, Stennett sped through city streets at 80 m.p.h. and crashed into Gavin's police cruiser, causing a fiery, fatal explosion.  

While there were multiple problems with how the police handled evidence in the shooting and crash, even the defense attorney conceded that Stennett was at least guilty of manslaughter in the officer's death.  But the jury acquitted him completely, stunning everyone.  

More recently, in 2010, the same prosecutor tried a murder case against a city police officer who shot a fleeing theft suspect in the back.  Another acquittal.

With this prosecutor's dismal record in high-profile cases , Bernstein is taking a big chance.  Maybe he expects that Phylicia Barnes is so sympathetic a victim that a jury will be loathe to let her accused murderer go, whoever prosecutes.   Maybe he will assign a very competent, meticulous prosecutor to second-chair the case.  

But why take any risk?