Douglas County Jail’s longest-serving inmate asks for murder trial to be delayed again

photo by: Mike Yoder

Rontarus Washington Jr. appears in Douglas County District Court Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, for a preliminary hearing to determine if there's enough probable cause to bind him over on a charge of first-degree murder in connection with the slaying of Justina Altamirano Mosso.

The Douglas County Jail’s longest-serving inmate has requested — and has been granted — another delay before he faces a jury that will decide whether he’s guilty of murder.

Rontarus Washington Jr., 21, has been in custody for more than three years and two months, longer than any other inmate of the jail.

Washington is accused of stabbing and bludgeoning 19-year-old Justina Altamirano Mosso to death on Nov. 7, 2014, in her estranged husband’s bathroom at Cedarwood Apartments, 1727 W. 24th St. Washington, who lived down the hall, is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary.

Washington was arraigned on Nov. 13, 2015, and pleaded not guilty to his charges. At that time, his jury trial was set for May 2016.

Since then, Washington’s trial has been pushed back six times, primarily at Washington’s request. The trial is now set to take place Oct. 22 through Nov. 2 of this year.

Douglas County District Court Judge James McCabria, who inherited the case from a now-retired judge, confirmed that Washington agreed to again waive his speedy trial rights before approving the new date this week.

“Realizing that circumstances can come up that require consideration,” McCabria said, “it’s going to be a hard date to get me to move.”

Washington’s appointed defense attorneys, Angela Keck and Adam Hall, asked for the delay because one of their key witnesses wouldn’t be available for the previously scheduled September trial date. They said neuropsychologist Marc Quillen is important to their case because he determined that Washington has impaired cognitive functioning, which Washington’s defense attorneys have argued, among other things, made Washington easily manipulated when being interviewed by police about the murder.

Meanwhile, extensive motions hearings continue. Defense attorneys have requested the court to suppress Washington’s statements to police, to allow them to argue that someone else instead of Washington — specifically, Mosso’s estranged husband — actually committed the crime and to order additional forensic testing of items found in the apartment, among other things. The case also involves numerous interviews and electronic messages in Spanish that are being translated.

Nearly a year was spent determining that Washington is mentally competent to stand trial, including several months he spent at Larned State Hospital and numerous ensuing hearings where attorneys argued over his competency.

At one recent hearing, McCabria voiced concern over how long the case was taking, though he understood that all parties wanted to present their best case and that Washington had repeatedly agreed to waive his right to a speedy trial.

“I’m feeling a certain pressure to bring the case to trial because Mr. Washington’s been in custody so long,” McCabria said. “I want to get these issues ironed out and get this case to trial with as little delay as possible.”

Prosecutor C.J. Rieg said she opposed continuing the trial again.

“I just don’t want another delay,” she said.

Keck said the defense, too, wanted to get to trial but that many different “issues” had come up that she thought needed to be addressed to ensure Washington received effective counsel.

“We’re not trying to delay this case because of just delaying it,” Keck said. “It’s been a very difficult and complex case.”

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