In Lawrence murder trial deliberations, majority of jurors flipped votes from not guilty to guilty; new trial scheduled

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

In this photo from Oct. 1, 2019, Rontarus Washington Jr. tells the judge he has chosen not to testify during his trial in Douglas County District Court.

Twelve jurors never reached a vote closer to unanimous than 10-2 in the murder trial of Rontarus Washington Jr., but over the course of roughly 20 hours of deliberations, the majority gradually flipped from voting not guilty to guilty of murder, one of the jurors said on Sunday.

They announced Friday that they were hung on all counts. At a status conference Monday, the judge set aside time for a new four-week trial to begin Feb. 24. Under state law, defendants are entitled to a new trial within 150 days of the declaration of a mistrial. The case is also set for a motions hearing on Dec. 3, and the defense is planning to file a motion to lower Washington’s bond.

Washington, 23, is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary in connection with the November 2014 death of 19-year-old Justina Altamirano Mosso. In the alternative, he is charged with first-degree felony murder, or a murder that occurs during the commission of a dangerous felony. Jurors were also instructed to consider lesser charges of second-degree murder and burglary, and all charges were to be considered separately.

On Sunday, the Journal-World was able to reach one juror who voted that Washington was guilty of murder and one who voted that he was not. The former said he believed from the evidence that Washington was guilty of murder in the second degree; the latter said he was never convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.

The jurors felt a good deal of pressure to come to a verdict, and it was upsetting to many of them that they couldn’t. One juror described the experience as “traumatizing” for many of them, and he said emotions were raw and volatile. Another said the discussions became heated at times.

Also, some jurors incorrectly believed that if they agreed on a verdict for the count of burglary but hung on the count of murder, the state would not have been able to retry Washington for the murder count.

photo by: Contributed photos

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

Washington has been in custody for four years and nine months, and his trial had been repeatedly delayed because of various complications. The length of the trial — which had been scheduled to last three weeks and ended up lasting four — created a hardship too great for many of those who were summoned for jury duty. Jury selection alone lasted the first three days of trial.

The prosecutor in the case had described Mosso’s stabbing and bludgeoning death as a burglary gone wrong; the defense had largely focused on shortcomings they saw in the police investigation and on Mosso’s husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz, as a possible alternative perpetrator in a crime of passion.

Guilty vote

One of the jurors, a Lawrence man, told the Journal-World that the timeline presented in evidence provided a very narrow window of opportunity on the Friday that investigators believe Mosso died, Nov. 7, 2014.

Combined, the timelines showed that Mosso’s cellphone was last used at 4:22 p.m. that day to search for a song. Cantu Ruiz, who had testified that he was moving to Manhattan that day, was en route to the town, as indicated by cell tower data. He also took photos in the bathroom of a rest stop west of Topeka, about 57 miles away from the apartment, at 4:56 p.m., and one of a mile marker a little farther down the highway.

The juror said that seemed consistent with Cantu Ruiz’s habit of taking lots of photos — as jurors were shown, he’d taken photos with his phone on a frequent basis.

The phone Washington was using showed no activity for a 33-minute window from 4:08 p.m. until 4:41 p.m., when he placed an outgoing call. Then Washington called a ride to come pick him up at 4:58 p.m. The juror said Washington didn’t come up with an alibi for that window of time, but that he had told police he saw Mosso’s body and ran out of the apartment. Investigators also found a footwear impression in blood at the crime scene that matched a pair of Nike slide sandals they found in a suitcase in Washington’s closet.

So maybe Washington did do this, because who else would’ve been able to, “outside of a floating assassin who left no trace of evidence — how is that even possible?” the juror said.

The juror said he didn’t think the county was equipped with the bilingual resources necessary to handle this case. The victim, her husband and many of the other witnesses in the case were Spanish speakers originally from Mexico. He said local law enforcement and first responders should want to provide the level of service to non-English speakers that they would all citizens, and that Douglas County is falling “woefully short” of that.

He also said he thought that the police department had “railroaded minorities” historically — “they’re not perfect,” he said, though he didn’t necessarily think that this was one of those cases. However, he said he’s not sure that some jurors were able to overlook those past shortcomings.

This juror said he would have found Washington guilty of second-degree murder, but the state didn’t meet its burden to prove the defendant guilty to the whole jury, and the system worked the way it was supposed to.

Not guilty vote

A second juror who voted that Washington was not guilty from the initial vote on said that he was never convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had murdered the young woman. He said some other jurors were swayed by some who had “strong personalities” and who believed Washington was guilty.

Some jurors felt that certain pieces taken by themselves were not evidence enough, but added together, Washington “could have” been the killer, the juror said. But to him, “could have” indicated a chance of reasonable doubt.

“My stance was if you have any (reasonable doubt), then your decision should be not guilty,” the juror said.

He said he felt that everyone could agree on convicting Washington of burglary — he had admitted to entering the apartment — but some of the jurors wanted to see him convicted of more.

“To me, I have no doubt that he would steal,” the juror said.

The juror said there were a lot of things that didn’t add up to him. He also questioned Cantu Ruiz’s photos from the trip to Manhattan and said it looked like he was trying to give himself an alibi.

“Based on the evidence, I don’t know if I could say (Cantu Ruiz) did it, but I think he knows who did it,” the juror said.

There was also partial DNA evidence that the prosecutor said linked Washington to the crime, but the sample could have been found at a statistical frequency of one in 2,000 men in the general population.

“I couldn’t convict a person on a one in 2,000 possibility,” the juror said.

“… I feel sad for Justina because I don’t think she got justice,” the juror said. “I feel bad for Washington, because I don’t think he’s getting justice, either. It was a very tough case.”

Contact Mackenzie Clark

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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 12 — Sept. 24, 2019: Neighbors: Defendant in Lawrence murder case requested ride out of state; victim and husband often had screaming arguments

Day 11 — Sept. 23, 2019: Coroner testifies that Lawrence homicide victim likely died of blood loss from multiple stab wounds and other cuts

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


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