State argues against bond reduction for long-jailed murder defendant Washington, notes that all 11 delays have been at defendant’s request
photo by: Mackenzie Clark / Journal-World File Photo
Prosecutors have asked a judge not to grant a request to lower the bond for a man who has been in jail for more than five years, arguing that the coronavirus pandemic is not as big a concern locally as it is elsewhere, and that after years of hearings and a trial, the court has chosen to maintain bond at its set amount.
Rontarus Washington Jr., 24, 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 ended in October 2019.
Washington’s bond has remained at $750,000 cash or surety, which would presumably require $75,000 to be paid to a bondsman upfront to secure his release. His defense attorneys earlier this month filed a motion requesting that his bond be lowered to $20,000 largely due to concerns about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has also raised concerns about the feasibility of jury trials in the near future.
However, prosecutors argue in their response that the concerns the defense cited about COVID-19 and jail conditions did not apply to Douglas County, which as of Thursday had 105 reported cases throughout the pandemic. By Monday, though, the total had increased to 159 cases, the Journal-World reported.
In their response, Senior Assistant Douglas County District Attorney Alice Walker and CJ Rieg, former chief assistant DA who now works for the state attorney general but is still prosecuting Washington’s case, also acknowledge the years that Washington has spent in the custody of the Douglas County Jail.
Prosecutors included an exhibit with their response: a six-page table detailing each continuance in the case. They wrote that Washington’s jury trial has been set and continued 11 times, each time at the request of defense counsel, and that “zero days of speedy trial had been assessed to the state” because Washington had waived that right multiple times. Under state law, a defendant in custody must be brought to trial within 150 days of being bound over for trial.
About a month after Washington was first charged in March 2015, his family hired Lawrence defense attorney Sarah Swain to represent him. Washington was bound over for trial following a preliminary hearing that September. In January 2016, Swain withdrew from the case, writing in a motion that the defendant had not paid for her services. The judge at the time appointed new counsel for Washington — his current team of Angela Keck and Adam Hall.
Following their appointment, Keck and Hall have raised a number of concerns regarding evidence in the case. They have hired experts, including one who has requested additional DNA testing multiple times. There have been hours’ worth of motions hearings leading up to trial dates over the years to determine what the judge will or will not allow to be admitted as evidence.
One delay in March 2019, the last before the case actually proceeded to the first trial that September, was agreed upon by both sides. The Journal-World reported that Altamirano Mosso’s phone could finally be unlocked, and that both sides thought that evidence was probably crucial to the case. Once the phone could be processed, its contents had to be translated from Spanish, which prolonged the delay.
“It’s kind of a critical piece of evidence,” Rieg said at the time, according to previous Journal-World coverage. “That’s why I’ve been trying to get it open for the past four years.”
The delay in unlocking the phone was attributed to new software that enabled investigators to perform a new technique that they previously couldn’t. However, during the first trial, the digital forensics detective who testified about unlocking the phone said that it was actually that “my brain got updated with training that allowed me to do it,” and it was unclear how long the software had existed.
Prosecutors write in the new response that the court has heard years of motions and evidence regarding the allegations in the case and “has chosen to maintain the bond at its set amount.” They also note, though, that the defense has not requested a bond modification until now.
If the court does find that Washington’s bond should be modified, the state requests that it be set in an amount consistent with a statute that says it should be “sufficient to assure the appearance of such person before the magistrate when ordered and to assure the public safety.”
Court records indicate that the defense has also filed a reply to the state’s response, but that motion has been sealed.
“The Defense reply had attached a report from a purported expert that addresses certain aspects of the case,” Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria said via email Monday. “Because the report contains purported expert opinion, the Court has to make a pre-trial determination whether those opinions would be admissible at trial.”
McCabria said it hadn’t yet been decided whether the defense reply would be taken up at the hearing Wednesday.
Washington’s case has become a central focus of an ongoing protest on Massachusetts Street. Protesters, who have gathered in the area of South Park since Saturday, planned to stay at least until they hear the results of the bond hearing.
Many of them — including Washington’s mother, who spoke at a recent Lawrence City Commission meeting — believe that Washington was unfairly targeted by police as a young Black man. Some protesters, citing evidence presented at Washington’s trial, support the defense theory that the victim’s estranged husband was involved in her death, though the state presented evidence at trial that indicated the husband was not in Lawrence at the time investigators believe Altamirano Mosso was killed.
Washington’s bond hearing is set to begin at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. The county put out a news release Monday reminding the public that in-person court hearings are still not generally open to nonparties, but that they will be livestreamed on YouTube. The video can be found by visiting youtube.com and searching “Douglas County District Court.”
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More coverage: Rontarus Washington Jr. case
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