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Third trial begins in Baltimore over murder of teenage girl

A Baltimore court has begun hearing the case against a 34-year-old man who is accused of murdering a 16-year-old North Carolina girl while she visited relatives.

It's a case that has been fraught with complications from the beginning. This is actually the third time prosecutors have brought the case to trial.

The accused murderer was the longtime boyfriend of the victim's older sister. Prosecutors say he became obsessed with the victim, despite their age difference.

However, the case is problematic because the evidence -- what there is of it -- is circumstantial. That means that it tends to lead to the conclusion that the accused murdered the victim, but there's no direct proof. It's much more difficult to prosecute a circumstantial case than it is one with direct evidence, like DNA or an eyewitness, because the standard for conviction in a murder case is "beyond a reasonable doubt."

There's been a lot of reason to doubt this particular case. The judge in the first case expressed misgivings about the merits of the evidence, which largely relies on the fact that the accused was the last person known to see the victim and the testimony of someone who saw the accused moving a heavy plastic container from his girlfriend's apartment. Prosecutors believe that the accused used the plastic container to transport the victim's body.

The accused's criminal defense attorney points out that the teen's phone, purse and coat were all missing, indicating that she may have left on her own. In addition, the accused was in the process of moving out of his girlfriend's apartment -- which accounts for the heavy tote.

Still, the original judge let the case go to the jury in 2013, and the jury convicted. The verdict was overturned on appeal. Prosecutors won a second time in 2015. That verdict was also overturned, with the appellate judge ordering an acquittal until a higher court reversed the order and declared a mistrial.

Had the acquittal been allowed to stand, double jeopardy would have attached. That's the legal premise that prevents prosecutors from pursuing a conviction for the same crime over and over again. However, when a conviction is overturned as a mistrial, double jeopardy doesn't apply and defendants can be forced to go to trial again.

Cases like this show the complexities of criminal trials -- and illustrate the sometimes convoluted path to the end.

Source: The Baltimore Sun, "For third time, prosecutors press case against man accused of killing of Phylicia Barnes," Justin Fenton, March 07, 2018

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