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

Rontarus Washington Jr., center, listens to arguments from prosecutors during a motions hearing Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Douglas County District Court. At left and right are Washington's attorneys, Adam Hall and Angela Keck.

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

Photos of Justina Altamirano Mosso, 19, provided by the Lawrence Police Department.

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

Deputy Douglas County District Attorney David Melton and Senior Assistant DA Alice Walker address the judge during a motions hearing Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Douglas County District Court.

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.”

• • •

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

Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria speaks to counsel during a motions hearing on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020.

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.

Contact Mackenzie Clark

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


More coverage: Rontarus Washington Jr. case

Oct. 9, 2020: Prosecutors, defense counsel argue about alleged ‘bad acts’ of Lawrence homicide victim’s husband in Rontarus Washington Jr. case

Sept. 11, 2020: Motions hearing dates set in Rontarus Washington Jr.’s case

Sept. 6, 2020: Breaking down the case of Rontarus Washington Jr., charged in 2014 Lawrence murder: FAQs and the latest motions

Aug. 31, 2020: Prosecutor withdraws from Rontarus Washington Jr. murder case

July 13, 2020: COVID-19 precautions, ‘technical difficulties’ hinder public access to court hearing in Lawrence murder case

July 1, 2020: Judge modifies bond to $500K for murder defendant, who is released the same day after 5 years in jail

June 30, 2020: State argues against bond reduction for long-jailed murder defendant Washington, notes that all 11 delays have been at defendant’s request

June 12, 2020: Rontarus Washington Jr., jailed 5 years on suspicion of Lawrence murder, to receive new bond hearing; defense alleges misconduct by state

May 4, 2020: DNA testing challenges due to COVID-19 further delay long-pending Lawrence murder 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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