Last-minute access to victim’s phone prompts another delay for murder trial of Lawrence man now jailed 4-plus years

photo by: Sara Shepherd

Rontarus Washington Jr. appears in Douglas County District Court during a motions hearing on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018.

Everyone in the courtroom agreed: The recent unlocking of a homicide victim’s phone adds critical evidence to the trial of her accused murderer.

However, the unlocking came too recently for lawyers to process evidence in time to get 22-year-old Rontarus Washington Jr. to trial on Monday as planned.

The judge this week pushed back Washington’s trial yet again, tentatively until mid-September. At that point, Washington — who has already been in continuous custody longer than anyone else at the Douglas County Jail — will have been jailed on the pending murder charges for four years and eight months.

Washington agreed yet again to waive his speedy trial rights, nodding and telling the judge “yes, sir.”

His appointed attorney, Angela Keck, appeared to comfort Washington by patting him on the back. Judge James McCabria said he understood the delay was frustrating but felt it necessary to be fair to Washington.

“I don’t see how I can rule differently,” McCabria said.

“I know you want to get this to trial, but given the nature of this I appreciate you being willing to defer to your attorneys.”

Keck said she and co-attorney Adam Hall thought it was “foolish” to go to trial without more time to sift through the phone data in search of evidence that could help Washington — “which we are hoping is there.”

Not only is there a lot of data, but it will probably need to be translated from Spanish, requiring even more time, Keck said. The victim, 19-year old Justina Altamirano Mosso, and a number of witnesses in the case were originally from Mexico.

Without disclosing details about what she’s learned from the phone so far, prosecutor C.J. Rieg said she did intend to use it at trial.

“It’s kind of a critical piece of evidence,” Rieg said. “That’s why I’ve been trying to get it open for the past four years.”

Washington was arrested in Greenville, Miss., in January 2015. After extradition proceedings, he was booked into the Douglas County Jail in March 2015.

He is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary in the Nov. 7, 2014, death of Mosso at Cedarwood Apartments, 1727 W. 24th St.

Mosso’s body was found, stabbed and bludgeoned, in the apartment of her recently estranged husband, who previously testified that he left her the keys and moved out of town earlier that night. Washington lived on the same floor.

A couple of weeks after the slaying, Lawrence police found Mosso’s phone on the roof of the building, wrapped in mismatched socks that had apparent mates in Washington’s apartment. However, they couldn’t look through the phone because it was locked.

On Feb. 14, Rieg learned that the FBI had come up with a program to remove the phone’s memory chip, she said.

A week later, McCabria ordered the FBI electronics lab in Missouri to unlock the phone and disseminate the downloaded information as soon as possible. That occurred, and attorneys got the data the first week of March, Rieg said.

However, that was only two weeks before Washington’s trial was supposed to start.

Instead, next week he and attorneys will return to the courtroom to set a new trial date. Tentatively, saying there aren’t earlier options for a three-week trial, McCabria has reserved Sept. 9 through Sept. 27.

photo by: Contributed photos

Photos of Justina Altamirano Mosso, 19, provided by the Lawrence Police Department.

photo by: Mike Yoder

From left, Scott Collins and Krystle Duvall, and Collins’ father, Robert Collins, stand on their balcony at Cedarwood apartments, pointing to the upstairs unit where Lawrence police are investigating a possible homicide, Monday, Nov. 10, 2014.

Contact Journal-World public safety reporter Sara Shepherd


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