DNA testing challenges due to COVID-19 further delay long-pending Lawrence murder case

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

From left, Rontarus Washington Jr. stands next to his defense attorneys, Angela Keck and Adam Hall, in this file photo from his trial on Sept. 24, 2019 in Douglas County District Court.

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.

• • •

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.

Contact Mackenzie Clark

Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact public safety reporter Mackenzie Clark:

More coverage: Rontarus Washington Jr. case

March 22, 2020: Speedy trial rights are on hold in Kansas. What does that mean for defendants?

March 6, 2020: Retrial date set for Rontarus Washington Jr. in 2014 Lawrence murder case

Feb. 28, 2020: Rontarus Washington Jr. defense pursues independent lab to avoid alleged KBI bias in Lawrence murder case

Feb. 24, 2020: Rontarus Washington Jr.’s retrial date still pending in Lawrence murder case; DNA testing timeline uncertain

Feb. 3, 2020: Rontarus Washington Jr., in jail 5 years in pending Lawrence murder case, will wait longer as defense requests more DNA testing

After the trial — Oct. 7, 2019: In Lawrence murder trial deliberations, majority of jurors flipped votes from not guilty to guilty; new trial scheduled

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 12 — Sept. 24, 2019: Neighbors: Defendant in Lawrence murder case requested ride out of state; victim and husband often had screaming arguments

Day 11 — Sept. 23, 2019: Coroner testifies that Lawrence homicide victim likely died of blood loss from multiple stab wounds and other cuts

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

Before trial

Sept. 5, 2019: Lawrence murder case, pending since 2014, set for trial next week

March 19, 2019: Last-minute access to victim’s phone prompts another delay for murder trial of Lawrence man now jailed 4-plus years

Feb. 21, 2019: 4 years after slaying, Lawrence homicide victim’s phone may finally be unlocked

Dec. 28, 2018: Defense continues dissecting evidence in murder case against man arrested 4 years ago

Dec. 23, 2018: Citing alleged missteps in 30-year-old New York case, defense lawyer demands coroner be barred from 2 Lawrence murder trials

Oct. 17, 2018: Trial now set to begin 4 years after man’s arrest in slaying of woman at Cedarwood Apartments

June 1, 2018: Douglas County Jail’s longest-serving inmate asks for murder trial to be delayed again

Nov. 19, 2017: Psychologists fill in picture of man accused of violently stabbing young Lawrence woman to death

Oct. 23, 2017: Mental competency evaluation for Cedarwood Apartments murder suspect done, but disputed

May 16, 2017: Competency evaluation ordered for man accused in 2014 Cedarwood Apartments slaying

Sept. 4, 2015: Homicide victim’s husband recounts ‘bad’ relationship with wife; man charged in death bound over for trial

Sept. 3, 2015: Coroner: November stabbing death of Lawrence woman, 19, was ‘overkill,’ ‘personal’

April 20, 2015: Homicide victim’s ex ordered to appear at preliminary hearing; affidavit sheds more light on the killing

March 16, 2015: Lawrence man charged with murder in death of woman at Cedarwood apartments

Jan. 16, 2015: Mississippi officials unsure when homicide suspect may have extradition hearing; accused was victim’s neighbor

Jan. 15, 2015: Man arrested in connection with November murder of 19-year-old Lawrence woman

Dec. 2, 2014: Police: Still no arrest in woman’s homicide, language barrier an added hurdle to investigation

Nov. 25, 2015: Cedarwood homicide victim buried in Mexico

Nov. 18, 2014: Police identify homicide victim at Cedarwood Apartments as 19-year-old woman

Nov. 11, 2014: No arrests, suspects in Cedarwood possible homicide; investigators remain on scene

Nov. 10, 2014: Police investigating possible homicide at Cedarwood apartments


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