Jury unable to reach verdict in 2014 Lawrence murder case; prosecutor wants to try again
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
Story updated at 5:15 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4:
After nearly three full days of deliberation, a jury on Friday was unable to reach a verdict in the murder trial of Rontarus Washington Jr., who was charged in connection with the 2014 death of a young woman who lived in his apartment building.
Douglas County District Court Judge James McCabria declared a mistrial after the jury announced its inability to decide, and prosecutor C.J. Rieg requested a new trial. A status conference has been set for Monday.
One juror could be seen crying as McCabria read the note to the court: “We are hung on all counts.”
On his way out of the courtroom, Washington — who has been in custody nearly four years and nine months awaiting trial — said to his mother, “Wipe them tears; they can’t keep me forever.”
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
Justina Altamirano Mosso, 19, was found slain in in the bathroom of apartment 13 at Lawrence’s Cedarwood Apartments, 1727 W. 24th St., the evening of Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014. She was bludgeoned twice with a toilet tank lid, which was found in pieces on the floor around her and in the bedroom/living area of the studio apartment, and stabbed more than two dozen times.
Investigators believe she actually died two days earlier, on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. That is largely based on her cellphone use, as the coroner testified that it would be impossible to know exactly when she died based on the forensic evidence.
photo by: Contributed photos
Washington, who is now 23, lived in apartment 10, on the opposite end of the third floor from No. 13. His trial had been repeatedly delayed. He faced charges of first-degree murder and aggravated burglary and, in the alternative, first-degree felony murder.
The trial spanned a full four weeks from Monday, Sept. 9, through Friday. Jurors heard roughly 90 hours of evidence and testimony from numerous detectives, patrol officers, friends, family members, neighbors and forensic experts. By Friday afternoon, the jurors had deliberated for more than 20 hours. The trial had been scheduled to wrap up on Sept. 27.
Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson sent the Journal-World the following statement Friday afternoon: “I appreciate the hard work the jury put into their deliberations. We will review any comments about the case they have and make a decision about retrial at the status conference on Monday.”
Rieg declined to comment.
Washington’s defense attorneys, Angela Keck and Adam Hall, said on their way out of the courtroom that they appreciated the work the jury put in. They said they wished they could comment further, but they couldn’t.
Mosso was a native of the small Mexican town of Iliatenco, Guerrero. She and her husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz, had a daughter named Danna whom they had left in the care of family back home.
The defense largely focused on Cantu Ruiz as a possible alternative perpetrator in the crime. Cantu Ruiz, now 31, has testified that their relationship was not good, and that Mosso had cheated on him multiple times. He believed she might have been pregnant at the time of her death and didn’t know who the father was, though the coroner determined through endometrial testing that she was not.
However, a former Lawrence Police Department detective testified that records from Cantu Ruiz’s phone, including cell tower location data and a photo he’d snapped at a rest stop 57 miles away from the apartment, corroborate his alibi that he was en route to Manhattan at the time of Mosso’s death.
Washington had told police that he noticed the door to apartment 13 wide open, went inside to see what was going on and came across Mosso’s body on the bloody bathroom floor. He said it was clear she was beaten or stabbed to death, though he didn’t see any of her injuries. He said he ran out “like a little (expletive)” and didn’t call police because he was afraid he’d get blamed for her death.
The particular type of DNA evidence that the state said links Washington to the crime — a partial sample from one of Mosso’s fingernail clippings, looking solely at the Y chromosome — is called a DNA “haplotype.” It is passed from men to their male offspring, so the partial sample could not rule out Washington or any of his male relatives. In addition, the same DNA haplotype would appear at a frequency of roughly 1 in 2,000 men in the general population, an expert from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation testified. There were also partial samples from at least two other unknown male subjects on the same fingernail clipping.
Mosso’s blood was also found on the bottom of some Nike sandals police said they found in a suitcase in Washington’s closet. There was no blood on the tops, however, and no other blood or DNA evidence linking Washington to the crime was mentioned during trial.
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
More coverage: Rontarus Washington Jr. trial
• Day 20 — Oct. 4, 2019: Jury unable to reach verdict in 2014 Lawrence murder case; prosecutor wants to try again
• Day 19 — Oct. 3, 2019: Lengthy Lawrence murder trial could end with hung jury; deliberations to resume Friday
• Day 18 — Oct. 2, 2019: Jury continues deliberating in Lawrence murder trial; will resume Thursday
• Day 17, closing arguments — Oct. 1, 2019: Prosecutor rehashes defendant’s story’s ‘progression,’ defense emphasizes passion in closing arguments for Lawrence murder trial
• Day 17, last of testimony — Oct. 1, 2019: Longtime Cedarwood resident may have seen Lawrence murder victim kissing an unknown man, he testifies
• Day 16 — Sept. 30, 2019: Detective: Husband’s phone was en route to Manhattan at time of Lawrence murder victim’s death
• Day 15 — Sept. 27, 2019: Defendant and victim’s husband left prints on toilet tank lid used as weapon in Lawrence murder
• Day 14 — Sept. 26, 2019: Expert: Partial DNA on Lawrence murder victim’s nail could link to 1 in 2,000 men
• Day 13 — Sept. 25, 2019: Lawrence murder defendant tells police he walked in on body, then they accuse him, video shows
• Day 10 — Sept. 20, 2019: Co-worker of murder victim’s husband lied to Lawrence police, he says; footwear impression expert testifies
• Day 9 — Sept. 19, 2019: Lawrence murder victim’s best friend testifies, alleges domestic abuse in victim’s marriage
• Day 8 — Sept. 18, 2019: Investigator gives jury photo walkthrough of crime scene in Lawrence murder case
• Day 7 — Sept. 17, 2019: Husband of Lawrence murder victim wants to stay in U.S. only until case wraps, he testifies
• Day 6 — Sept. 16, 2019: Lawrence murder victim’s husband recounts alleged infidelity, lack of trust in relationship
• Day 5 — Sept. 13, 2019: Lawrence murder victim’s husband believed she was pregnant at time of her death, he testifies
• Day 4 — Sept. 12, 2019: Cousin testifies about last time she saw Lawrence murder victim alive
• Day 3 — Sept. 11, 2019: With jury selected, Lawrence murder trial to proceed
• Day 2 — Sept. 10, 2019: Prosecutor questions jury pool about graphic photos, domestic violence, biases in Lawrence murder trial
• Day 1 — Sept. 9, 2019: Jury selection begins in trial for 2014 Lawrence murder
Contact Mackenzie Clark
Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact public safety reporter Mackenzie Clark: