Rontarus Washington Jr.’s retrial date still pending in Lawrence murder case; DNA testing timeline uncertain
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
A new trial date in a Lawrence murder case that has been pending more than five years is still up in the air after a hearing Monday, and it’s still unclear when additional forensic testing can be completed.
Rontarus Washington Jr., 23, is charged with first-degree murder in connection with the Nov. 7, 2014, death of his 19-year-old neighbor, Justina Altamirano Mosso. The case first went to a four-week trial in September 2019, but the jury hung after three days of deliberation.
Monday had previously been the anticipated start date for a retrial, but Washington’s defense attorneys, Adam Hall and Angela Keck, earlier this month requested further testing of scrapings from under the victim’s fingernails in hopes of finding more conclusive DNA evidence. The trial has been delayed numerous other times as new evidence has been sought or has become available.
At a hearing Monday, Hall argued against parts of an order that Chief Assistant District Attorney CJ Rieg had prepared for the judge to sign to get that testing done.
The defense had requested testing of evidence that the KBI lab report said contained some fingernail scrapings, additional fingernail clippings, some hairs, red-brown staining, nail clippers and plastic scrapers, Hall said. Separate items in evidence contained clippings of Altamirano Mosso’s fingernails that the coroner had taken from the scene where she was found bludgeoned and stabbed to death, at Cedarwood Apartments at 1727 W. 24th St.
photo by: Contributed photos
An issue at trial was that it was unclear where on one of the fingernail clippings some partial DNA had been found. Rieg said Monday that she had asked, and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation forensic lab would be unable to swab the undersides of the fingernail clippings to try to pick up just that DNA — which could potentially be that of Altamirano Mosso’s attacker, if she had scratched in self-defense — because the clippings could have cross-contaminated each other through contact in the same container.
Hall also objected to the state taking a new swab of Washington’s DNA, which Rieg said the KBI had requested. He argued that the KBI already had a sample, and that it was an unreasonable search and seizure and an invasion of Washington’s privacy to take buccal swabs of his cheek cells again.
Chief Judge James McCabria said he did not know why the KBI would want a new sample from Washington, and to Hall’s argument, “I find that very unpersuasive.”
Keck said the defense also wants any DNA evidence found in the fingernail scrapings compared to the DNA of Felipe Cantu Ruiz, Altamirano Mosso’s estranged husband. The defense has contended throughout the case that “there is substantial competent evidence that (Cantu Ruiz) … along with others, is responsible for her murder,” as stated in the recent motion seeking more DNA testing.
photo by: Richard Gwin
Additionally, the draft order said that no further DNA testing would be sought in connection with this case. Hall objected to that, and McCabria said he did not want to rule out the possibility.
Rieg said she had not heard back from KBI on a tentative timeline for when the DNA testing could be completed. However, she said “last time” it took approximately 60-90 days. Keck said after it’s done, the defense would want their expert to review the findings.
The retrial could start on Aug. 31, but that date is not yet firm. McCabria said once that date is set, he doesn’t want to move it. The parties set the next hearing for Friday, when they hope to have a more clear timeline for the KBI to get results and will aim to firm up that retrial date.
Washington — who on Monday wore navy blue pants, indicative of minimum-security status at the Douglas County Jail — has been in custody for about five years awaiting a resolution in the case.
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More coverage: Rontarus Washington Jr. case
• After the trial — Oct. 7, 2019: In Lawrence murder trial deliberations, majority of jurors flipped votes from not guilty to guilty; new trial scheduled
September 2019 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
• Sept. 5, 2019: Lawrence murder case, pending since 2014, set for trial next week
• Nov. 25, 2015: Cedarwood homicide victim buried in Mexico
• Nov. 10, 2014: Police investigating possible homicide at Cedarwood apartments