Rontarus Washington Jr.’s retrial date still pending in Lawrence murder case; DNA testing timeline uncertain

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.

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

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

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

In this file photo from Sept. 4, 2015, Felipe Cantu Ruiz testifies at the preliminary hearing of Rontarus Washington Jr., who is charged with first-degree murder in connection with the Nov. 7, 2014 death of Cantu Ruiz’s wife, Justina Altamirano Mosso.

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.

Contact Mackenzie Clark

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More coverage: Rontarus Washington Jr. case

Feb. 3, 2020: Rontarus Washington Jr., in jail 5 years in pending Lawrence murder case, will wait longer as defense requests more DNA testing

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 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

Before trial

Sept. 5, 2019: Lawrence murder case, pending since 2014, set for trial next week

March 19, 2019: Last-minute access to victim’s phone prompts another delay for murder trial of Lawrence man now jailed 4-plus years

Feb. 21, 2019: 4 years after slaying, Lawrence homicide victim’s phone may finally be unlocked

Dec. 28, 2018: Defense continues dissecting evidence in murder case against man arrested 4 years ago

Dec. 23, 2018: Citing alleged missteps in 30-year-old New York case, defense lawyer demands coroner be barred from 2 Lawrence murder trials

Oct. 17, 2018: Trial now set to begin 4 years after man’s arrest in slaying of woman at Cedarwood Apartments

June 1, 2018: Douglas County Jail’s longest-serving inmate asks for murder trial to be delayed again

Nov. 19, 2017: Psychologists fill in picture of man accused of violently stabbing young Lawrence woman to death

Oct. 23, 2017: Mental competency evaluation for Cedarwood Apartments murder suspect done, but disputed

May 16, 2017: Competency evaluation ordered for man accused in 2014 Cedarwood Apartments slaying

Sept. 4, 2015: Homicide victim’s husband recounts ‘bad’ relationship with wife; man charged in death bound over for trial

Sept. 3, 2015: Coroner: November stabbing death of Lawrence woman, 19, was ‘overkill,’ ‘personal’

April 20, 2015: Homicide victim’s ex ordered to appear at preliminary hearing; affidavit sheds more light on the killing

March 16, 2015: Lawrence man charged with murder in death of woman at Cedarwood apartments

Jan. 16, 2015: Mississippi officials unsure when homicide suspect may have extradition hearing; accused was victim’s neighbor

Jan. 15, 2015: Man arrested in connection with November murder of 19-year-old Lawrence woman

Dec. 2, 2014: Police: Still no arrest in woman’s homicide, language barrier an added hurdle to investigation

Nov. 25, 2015: Cedarwood homicide victim buried in Mexico

Nov. 18, 2014: Police identify homicide victim at Cedarwood Apartments as 19-year-old woman

Nov. 11, 2014: No arrests, suspects in Cedarwood possible homicide; investigators remain on scene

Nov. 10, 2014: Police investigating possible homicide at Cedarwood apartments


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