DNA testing challenges due to COVID-19 further delay long-pending Lawrence murder case
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
As the coronavirus pandemic and some related government orders to shelter in place continue, testing of evidence in a long-pending Lawrence murder case has been delayed.
At a videoconference hearing Monday in the case of Rontarus Washington Jr., defense attorneys Adam Hall and Angela Keck said that an independent lab will be unable to complete DNA testing by the end of May, because of an extension of a shelter-in-place order in Contra Costa County, Calif.
Washington, 23, is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary in connection with the November 2014 death of 19-year-old Justina Altamirano Mosso. He has been in custody of the Douglas County Jail for more than five years, as his court case has been delayed several times, generally in order to seek new evidence. A nearly monthlong trial in September 2019 ended with a hung jury.
During Monday’s hearing, Chief Assistant District Attorney CJ Rieg said she’d contacted the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and its lab will begin slowly reopening next week. Hall said the defense planned to stick with the Serological Research Institute in Richmond, Calif., but might reconsider depending on how long the testing might be delayed.
As the Journal-World has reported, Washington’s attorneys have requested further testing for DNA that could be more conclusive than what was available during the first trial. They did not want to use the KBI lab because they said it had shown an “obvious bias” against Washington and an unwillingness to perform further testing in the case.
Washington did not attend the hearing.
A status conference in the case is set for June 12. Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria said he hoped that, by that time, the court would be in a position to hold the hearing in person rather than via videoconference.
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Court seals search warrant
The Journal-World in March filed a request for disclosure of the affidavit supporting the search warrant that allowed Lawrence police to search Washington’s apartment on Nov. 24, 2014.
Online court records indicate that the state filed a motion in support of sealing the affidavit, and defense counsel filed a memorandum in support of releasing the document. Both documents were filed under seal, so the Journal-World cannot access them.
McCabria wrote in a ruling on the Journal-World’s request that the court recognizes the public has an interest in access to court records, but that right is not unlimited and must be balanced against the risk of endangering a fair trial.
“This Court finds that, for all practical purposes, the information contained in the affidavit has, to a very public degree, been placed before the public,” he wrote. “Releasing the affidavit now, even a redacted version, serves no real additional public interest.”
“The Court is also aware that additional testing has been ordered in this case,” the ruling continues. “What may follow from the results of that testing may prompt additional law enforcement action or criminal investigation.”
In addition, the judge wrote that many civilian witnesses have already been put through the stress of one jury trial; they are aware that another trial is coming, and their mental and emotional well-being is another factor the court must consider.
Washington’s case is currently set to begin a second four-week trial in August; however, because of ongoing concerns about COVID-19, it is not yet clear whether the courts will be able to safely hold jury trials by that time.
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More coverage: Rontarus Washington Jr. case
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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 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
• Sept. 5, 2019: Lawrence murder case, pending since 2014, set for trial next week
• Nov. 25, 2015: Cedarwood homicide victim buried in Mexico
• Nov. 10, 2014: Police investigating possible homicide at Cedarwood apartments