COVID-19 precautions, ‘technical difficulties’ hinder public access to court hearing in Lawrence murder case
photo by: Mackenzie Clark/Journal-World File Photo
Updated at 5:44 p.m. Monday
The public had no access to a court hearing for a defendant in a long-pending Lawrence murder case on Monday, but a transcript was posted on the court’s website by the end of the day.
Rontarus Washington Jr., 24, attended court for a bond hearing Monday morning with his defense attorneys, Adam Hall and Angela Keck. Washington has been charged with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary in connection with the November 2014 death of a neighbor in his apartment complex, 19-year-old Justina Altamirano Mosso.
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit Kansas, in-person court proceedings have been limited. In Douglas County District Court, hearings that do occur in person have generally been limited solely to parties who had to be present; supporters have not been allowed entry. The court has created a YouTube page where public hearings are being livestreamed as an alternative.
About 30 to 35 of Washington’s supporters gathered outside the downtown Judicial and Law Enforcement Center during the hearing. They raised concerns about no one being allowed inside the courtroom, including Washington’s mother, particularly when an audio glitch made it impossible to hear what was happening on the YouTube livestream. The Journal-World was also denied entry.
Chief Judge James McCabria said via email Monday that he was “most irritated at the technical difficulties” with the livestream. The court had its vendor check the microphones in McCabria’s division on Friday, but he didn’t know the details, he said.
However, the court reporter who was present could have a transcript by Tuesday, and they will likely post the transcript to the court website, McCabria said. It was finished ahead of schedule and posted online at douglascountyks.org/depts/division-4/hearings around 5 p.m. Monday.
Washington, who waived his right to a speedy trial and spent about five years and three months in jail in the pending case, was released on $500,000 surety bond on July 1. McCabria lowered the bond amount from $750,000, and community fundraising efforts raised the necessary $50,000 to bail him out the same day. The jury hung in October 2019 after Washington’s first trial, and with concerns about COVID-19, it is still unclear when a retrial will be possible.
McCabria said Monday that he added a bond condition that Washington not associate with any person with pending felony cases. He also modified bond to allow Washington to have contact with one of his relatives.
The hearing’s main purpose was to schedule upcoming motions deadlines and hearing dates. Washington’s next court hearing is set for Sept. 11.
“That date was selected based off the State’s representation that the (Kansas Bureau of Investigation) testing should be completed within 60 days,” McCabria wrote. Prosecutors and the defense have requested additional DNA testing in the long-pending case.
As the Journal-World has reported, the defense team has requested further testing of scrapings from under Altamirano Mosso’s fingernails and a towel with red-brown staining that was found with items believed to belong to Altamirano Mosso’s husband. The towel was not tested for the presence of blood or DNA, investigators previously testified.
The state has requested further testing of a swab of a kitchen cabinet in the apartment where Washington was living at the time of Altamirano Mosso’s death. The swab indicated the presence of blood, but the test sample did not contain DNA sufficient for comparison, a KBI lab expert previously testified.
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More coverage: Rontarus Washington Jr. case
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• Day 17, closing arguments — Oct. 1, 2019: Prosecutor rehashes defendant’s story’s ‘progression,’ defense emphasizes passion in closing arguments for Lawrence murder trial
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• Day 16 — Sept. 30, 2019: Detective: Husband’s phone was en route to Manhattan at time of Lawrence murder victim’s death
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• 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
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• Day 6 — Sept. 16, 2019: Lawrence murder victim’s husband recounts alleged infidelity, lack of trust in relationship
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• Day 4 — Sept. 12, 2019: Cousin testifies about last time she saw Lawrence murder victim alive
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• 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
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