Prosecutors, defense counsel argue about alleged ‘bad acts’ of Lawrence homicide victim’s husband in Rontarus Washington Jr. case
photo by: Mackenzie Clark/Journal-World File Photo
Whether jurors will hear evidence of new alleged “bad acts” of a homicide victim’s husband is still to be determined after a motions hearing Friday in the case of Rontarus Washington Jr.
It’s been almost six years since Nov. 7, 2014, when investigators say 19-year-old Justina Altamirano Mosso was bludgeoned and stabbed to death in an apartment at 1727 W. 24th St. in Lawrence.
Washington, now 24, was her neighbor at the time, and he has been charged with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary in connection with her death. However, his attorneys, Angela Keck and Adam Hall, have long held that the victim’s husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz, was actually responsible for her death, and that has been their defense strategy for the case.
photo by: Contributed photos
The former chief assistant district attorney withdrew from the case in August. Two new prosecutors, Senior Assistant DA Alice Walker and Deputy DA David Melton, have been catching up with more than five years’ worth of hearings. That includes Washington’s first trial, which began in September 2019 and ended four weeks later with a hung jury.
In a motion asking the court to admit “prior bad acts” of Cantu Ruiz, the defense has asked the judge to allow jurors at the second trial to hear evidence that, for instance, Cantu Ruiz allegedly told witnesses not to speak to the defense investigator and threatened some of them.
Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria, during arguments Friday, said that “by and large, the state has a circumstantial case” against Washington that lacks direct evidence, and the defense had presented sufficient evidence to support their third-party perpetrator theory.
However, what type of evidence in support of an alternative suspect theory that can be used in court was in question in this case. Hall said Friday that Cantu Ruiz had admitted to telling witnesses not to talk to the defense investigator, and that he had talked “in a racist way about Black people.” Hall said those actions established a consciousness of guilt.
Walker argued that evidence about a third party should be limited to a motive to commit the crime; McCabria, however, said his analysis was different from Walker’s, and that the court had previously allowed the defense to present evidence of Cantu Ruiz’s violence against Altamirano Mosso in the time prior to her death to show that history, for instance.
A key witness for the defense was unavailable to testify, but defense counsel has also requested that her testimony be taken under seal. The witness, who would have testified from another state via videoconference, was afraid for her family members’ safety. Walker said the state didn’t have enough information to agree to allow her testimony under seal. The judge on Friday sealed court documents that contain more detail on that matter.
The whereabouts of Cantu Ruiz were not entirely clear, either. Keck said he had “decided to make himself unavailable for this hearing.” Keck said prosecutors had told her that Cantu Ruiz was in Chicago, but he had told the defense investigator that he was in Mexico.
photo by: Mackenzie Clark/Journal-World File Photo
The judge did not make any final rulings on the admissibility of any “bad acts” on Friday.
However, McCabria did rule Friday that he would not have potential jurors watch an 11-minute video about unconscious bias as the defense had requested. The video was created for use in a federal court in Washington, and the judge said he had some concerns about it.
McCabria said that at the end of the video, jurors are instructed that once they have considered the evidence in the case and come to a decision, they should take one extra step and think about whether they would reach the same conclusion if the case involved someone of another age, race, sex and so on. Such an instruction is not part of Kansas law.
“That’s not this court saying implicit bias is not a reality that exists,” McCabria said, noting that he touches on bias in his standard juror orientation.
McCabria also said he would review proposed juror questionnaires from defense counsel and prosecutors and produce a revised version before the next court date.
The judge also said he was not going to grant a request from the defense to send footwear evidence in the case to an expert in Florida, William Bodziak, for examination; however, he said if counsel wanted to file a formal motion to do so, he would hear arguments on it. Walker said the Lawrence Police Department has procedures in place so the expert could come to Kansas to examine the evidence, but that the state was not in a position to mail it to Florida.
photo by: AP File Photo
At the second motions hearing, scheduled for all day Friday, Nov. 13, the court will take up defense counsel’s motion to dismiss or to disqualify the prosecutor. In the meantime, there will be a status conference held via videoconference at 4 p.m. Oct. 13.
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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