Judge modifies bond to $500K for murder defendant, who is released the same day after 5 years in jail
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
Story updated at 8 p.m. Wednesday:
A judge on Wednesday lowered by $250,000 the $750,000 bond that has kept a man in jail five years as his murder case is pending in Douglas County District Court.
By 6:45 p.m., 24-year-old Rontarus Washington Jr. had bonded out of the Douglas County Jail and was on his way to get the ankle monitor he’ll be required to wear while he’s out on bond.
The defense team for Washington, attorneys Adam Hall and Angela Keck, requested that Chief Judge James McCabria lower Washington’s bond to $20,000 to make it less financially burdensome while he awaits his retrial. Washington is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary in connection with the November 2014 death of his 19-year-old neighbor, Justina Altamirano Mosso.
After hearing arguments, taking a brief recess and sharing his reasoning, McCabria ruled that he would agree to lower the bond to $500,000.
The $500,000 cash or surety bond presumably still required a $50,000 upfront payment before Washington could be released from custody. However, protesters outside the courthouse reported that fundraising efforts for Washington’s bail were going strong since the judge’s ruling. A GoFundMe page reported at about 12:45 p.m. — about 45 minutes after the hearing concluded — that more than $30,000 had been raised for Washington’s bail.
While the hearing was taking place Wednesday morning, a crowd of more than 100 people had gathered outside the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, which is where court cases generally are heard. Wednesday’s hearing was conducted virtually by video because of the COVID-19 pandemic. An audio broadcast of the hearing was played outside the judicial center where the crowd had gathered.
Natasha Neal, an organizer of protesters who have occupied a portion of Massachusetts Street near the courthouse since Saturday, announced to the group that The Raven, a downtown Lawrence bookstore, had offered its business as part of the collateral needed to satisfy Washington’s $500,000 bond.
Danny Caine, owner of The Raven, told the Journal-World that details were still being worked out and that it was his understanding that other entities were also offering to help meet the collateral needs.
“The Raven is helping with collateral,” he said, “not offering the whole business as collateral.”
By 5 p.m., the community crowdfunding had raised enough money to cover the $50,000 surety payment to bond Washington out, and to cover a $2,000 deposit for the electronic ankle monitor.
At the hearing, arguments centered on how large Washington’s bond should be. Alice Walker, senior assistant Douglas County district attorney, argued that a $20,000 cash or surety bond might not ensure that Washington will appear for court. She said the “unusually long case” does not change the state’s allegation against Washington, which is that he committed a “heinous and brutal” murder.
Keck argued that Washington faces an increased risk of contracting the coronavirus, citing how quickly it has spread through other correctional facilities once they have even a single case. She also said she believes he’s not a flight risk.
“He wants to stay here and be an active participant in his defense, and that’s his motive to stay here and not flee as an innocent man — presumed innocent,” Keck said.
A murder trial in Washington’s case ended in a mistrial in October after a jury was unable to reach a verdict. Washington has waived his right to a speedy trial, and his case has stretched on for years as the result of motions made by both the defense and prosecution in the case.
Among factors McCabria also said he’d taken into consideration in his decision was the strength of evidence presented by the state and the defense at Washington’s first trial, which ended with a hung jury in October. Without looking at how strong the evidence was on either side in isolation, “the best we can say is, with at least one jury, there was not enough to go either way,” McCabria said.
McCabria also said it was “troubling” that he did not have any information about the defendant’s family circumstances — for instance, whether his mother, mentioned briefly in the defense motion to lower bond as having moved to Kansas from Mississippi, had taken up permanent residence in Topeka.
Walker said she had looked at other cases of defendants charged with first-degree murder in Douglas County District Court, and $500,000 was the low end of bonds set in those cases. McCabria ultimately agreed to do that, and he said he didn’t want that to be viewed as a “hollow gesture.”
Regarding COVID-19, McCabria said the Douglas County Jail had avoided any outbreaks and was quarantining new inmates for 72 hours to ensure they don’t develop symptoms.
Walker and Hall also argued their positions on the defense’s sealed supplemental bond argument. McCabria eventually ruled that redacted versions of some motions would be unsealed and made available in the public case file.
The defense motion contains a preliminary report from a purported expert that will require further hearings to determine whether it will be admitted to trial, McCabria said, and he thinks its release could prejudice the right to a fair trial.
Washington declined to comment as he left the jail, beaming, in the presence of about 30 friends and supporters, plus reporters from several area media outlets.
However, his mother, Kenisha Clark, told the Journal-World that the fight wasn’t over. Washington’s next court hearing is July 13.
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More coverage: Rontarus Washington Jr. case
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