Rontarus Washington Jr., jailed 5 years on suspicion of Lawrence murder, to receive new bond hearing; defense alleges misconduct by state
photo by: Mackenzie Clark/Journal-World File Photo
Updated at 2:58 p.m. Friday
After being held in custody for about five years and three months on $750,000 bond, Rontarus Washington Jr., 23, will soon receive a new bail hearing.
Washington was arrested in early 2015 and charged with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary in connection with the November 2014 death of his 19-year-old neighbor, Justina Altamirano Mosso. He has been awaiting a second trial since the jury hung after his first four-week trial, which began in September 2019.
In a recent motion, Washington’s defense attorneys, Angela Keck and Adam Hall, have argued that he faces a high risk if exposed to the novel coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said early data indicates that racial and ethnic minorities face a disproportionate burden of illness and death from COVID-19.
The pandemic has also rendered jury trials virtually impossible since mid-March, and the parties agreed Friday that the August date for a retrial was not feasible. Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria also said he did not know whether the fall would bring further complications from the pandemic; also, in scheduling such a lengthy trial, the holidays could become an issue.
The defense has asked McCabria to reconsider the high cash or surety bond — which would presumably require $75,000 upfront — and reset it to $20,000 cash or surety, “which is more proportionate to the facts in this case, considering the amount of time he has already spent in custody, and still can assure his appearance in Court.” With that bond, Washington would likely need to pay $2,000 to be released.
In addition, family members of Washington have now moved to Kansas from Mississippi, and Washington would be able to stay at a local religious center if released on bond. As of his last in-person hearing, Washington was being held in minimum security at the Douglas County Jail.
Washington’s hearing on bond is set for July 1. At that time, the parties will set dates for pretrial motions and consider a new retrial date. The parties also hope to have results of further DNA testing that is in progress.
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Prosecutors have not yet had time to file responses to a number of new motions from the defense, including a “motion to dismiss due to prosecutorial error, or in the alternative to disqualify the prosecutor.”
CJ Rieg, former chief assistant Douglas County district attorney, is now employed by the Kansas attorney general’s office, trial assistant Dorothy Kliem told the Journal-World via email last month. Her last day was March 6 and her cases have been reassigned, with the exception of Washington’s case, which Rieg will prosecute alongside Senior Assistant District Attorney Alice Walker, Kliem said.
Altamirano Mosso was found bludgeoned and stabbed to death in the apartment she had shared with her husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz, until she moved out shortly before her death. Washington lived down the hall. The defense has argued that Cantu Ruiz had a motive for the killing, but Rieg presented evidence indicating he was not in town at the time investigators believe she died.
That 33-page motion alleges that another Lawrence attorney, who was representing Altamirano Mosso’s family, told the DA’s office that in the days following the murder, many family members told him that the victim’s husband was involved — “yet this highly exculpatory evidence was never disclosed to the defense.”
The defense investigator followed up on that information and reportedly learned of other prior bad acts, according to the motion.
“Felipe Cantu Ruiz also called the defense investigator and told her that the defense team was trash and to stop interviewing the witnesses,” the motion alleges. “He told her he hoped she had someone murdered in her family.”
The defense investigator felt threatened by the call and reported it to police, according to the motion.
It includes several additional allegations, including witness tampering by the state. On the first day of Washington’s trial, a Spanish-speaking Lawrence police officer who had helped translate during the murder investigation took defense witnesses into the DA’s office, the motion states; afterward, the witnesses would no longer meet with the defense investigator.
Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said via email Friday that the fact that defense attorneys have made allegations in motions based upon “anticipated facts” does not mean those allegations are true.
“The defense has previously filed at least 38 motions in this case, resulting in considerable delay to the case so those motions could be litigated,” he wrote. “Just as with those previous motions, the State will be filing written responses to these new defense motions denying all of the allegations.”
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• Trial 1, day 20 — Oct. 4, 2019: Jury unable to reach verdict in 2014 Lawrence murder case; prosecutor wants to try again
• Trial 1, day 17, closing arguments — Oct. 1, 2019: Prosecutor rehashes defendant’s story’s ‘progression,’ defense emphasizes passion in closing arguments for Lawrence murder trial
• Nov. 25, 2015: Cedarwood homicide victim buried in Mexico