Attorney testifies that he told prosecutor ‘you’ve got the wrong guy’ in murder case — but admits he provided no concrete evidence
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
A Lawrence attorney testified Friday that he told a prosecutor almost six years ago, “Rontarus didn’t do it — you’ve got the wrong guy.”
However, he said that statement was based on what two distraught family members of the victim had told him, and he didn’t know of any evidence to support their belief that the victim’s husband — not Rontarus Washington Jr. — was responsible for her homicide. He also said that he did not know the names of the two women who made the claim to him.
Washington, 24, is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary in connection with the November 2014 death of his neighbor, 19-year-old Justina Altamirano Mosso. Washington’s defense attorneys, Adam Hall and Angela Keck, have suggested Altamirano Mosso’s husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz, as a possible alternative suspect.
The jury hung after Washington’s four-week trial in September 2019. Prosecutors moved to retry him, but that has not yet happened — and likely won’t happen earlier than March 2021 — because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has halted jury trials in Douglas County District Court.
photo by: Contributed photos
After the first trial, defense counsel filed multiple motions, including one to dismiss the case due to prosecutorial error, or in the alternative, to disqualify the prosecutor.
One concern raised in that motion was that the defense had not learned until after the first trial that attorney Max Kautsch had reportedly told Deputy District Attorney David Melton after Washington was arrested in January 2015 that some family members of the victim were “convinced” that Cantu Ruiz had killed Altamirano Mosso. Keck wrote in the motion that this was “exculpatory evidence” that was never provided to the defense.
At the time, Kautsch was taking criminal defense cases and often worked with Spanish-speaking defendants, he said. In one case, he went to meet with a client and two female family members in late November 2014, a few weeks after Altamirano Mosso was found bludgeoned and stabbed to death. The women were “extremely distraught” about the death and were adamant that Cantu Ruiz was the perpetrator, Kautsch said.
Kautsch testified Friday that he felt that he had built some rapport with Melton over the years and felt that they had a good relationship. So after he heard that Washington had been arrested in connection with Altamirano Mosso’s death, he had a brief conversation with Melton — he described it as lasting about 30 seconds — about his client’s family members being distraught, Kautsch said.
Kautsch said he couldn’t recall now how Melton responded, other than asking him, “Rontarus didn’t do it?”
Melton and Senior Assistant District Attorney Alice Walker took over the case from CJ Rieg, who is no longer working for the DA’s office, in August. Both were present for Kautsch’s testimony Friday.
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
On cross-examination, Walker asked Kautsch whether he had ever mentioned any concrete evidence in support of what the family members said to Melton, and Kautsch said he had not. He said the family members “didn’t have a smoking gun.” But he said that once he found out Washington was charged, he felt it was his duty to tell the district attorney’s office what he had heard.
Walker asked Kautsch whether he had ever reported Melton to the Kansas Office of the Disciplinary Administrator for withholding exculpatory information, which would be a violation of prosecutors’ code of ethics. Kautsch confirmed that he knew he would have a duty to report such an act, but he said that he hadn’t thought about it that way, and he didn’t think Melton had committed an ethical violation.
Kautsch said he never reported the information to Lawrence police, nor did he contact the DA’s office again to see whether Melton had asked Lawrence police to investigate what the women told him. However, Kautsch said he “wasn’t revealing that information for no reason,” and his objective was that Melton would have LPD look into it.
Kautsch said he never provided the women’s names to the DA’s office, nor would he speculate about who they were during a recent meeting with prosecutors.
He did say, in response to Walker’s question, that he speculated about their names for defense counsel after Washington’s mistrial. He said that when he heard that the case was going to be retried, he reached out to Hall and Keck with the information to avoid what he said he considered to be a “misuse of resources in an attempt to convict Mr. Washington.”
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For most of the morning, the courtroom was closed to the public and the hearing was not broadcast over YouTube.
Walker and Melton said the state had concerns about evidence, including some that had been admitted for the first trial, supporting Cantu Ruiz as a possible alternative perpetrator. At the first trial, Hall and Keck were allowed to question Cantu Ruiz about his relationship with Altamirano Mosso, which Cantu Ruiz himself had characterized as “bad,” including about his arrest for alleged domestic battery of her about six months before her death. He was released from jail without being charged.
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
The defense had proposed one witness with additional testimony to support its theory. Chief Judge James McCabria had previously declined to allow the witness to give testimony under seal; on Friday, however, he reversed that decision.
McCabria said it was not clear whether the testimony was going to be admissible at Washington’s retrial, but allowing the public to hear it at this stage would just erode the availability of potential jurors and could harm the court’s ability to hold a fair trial.
Washington’s next hearing is set for Monday, Dec. 7. Keck told the judge she’s expecting testimony from several more witnesses on that date.
After having spent five years in jail awaiting trial, then retrial, Washington is free on a $500,000 surety bond pending the outcome of his next trial.
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More coverage: Rontarus Washington Jr. case
• Sept. 11, 2020: Motions hearing dates set in Rontarus Washington Jr.’s case
• Aug. 31, 2020: Prosecutor withdraws from Rontarus Washington Jr. murder case
• 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 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