Rontarus Washington Jr.’s counsel withdraws from long-running murder case; he might soon be represented by Innocence Project

photo by: Screenshot of Douglas County District Court

Douglas County District Court Judge James McCabria speaks to the prosecutors and defense counsel for Rontarus Washington Jr. during a hearing on April 20, 2021. This screenshot was obtained by the Journal-World with permission provided by the court.

Rontarus Washington Jr. will soon have new counsel representing him in a long-running murder case — possibly an attorney from the Innocence Project.

During a hearing on Tuesday, Chief Judge James McCabria allowed Washington’s current counsel — attorneys Adam Hall and Angela Keck — to withdraw from the case after serving as his representatives for five years. They filed a motion to withdraw from the case last month, but a ruling didn’t come until after several additional hearings. McCabria had appointed another attorney, Carol Cline, to serve as Washington’s counsel for that motion alone.

After the ruling on Tuesday, McCabria originally said he would appoint new counsel for Washington later this week. However, Hall and Keck said that attorney Josh Dubin of the Innocence Project had expressed interest in the case, and McCabria discussed the topic with Dubin on the phone during the hearing. Dubin said the Midwest chapter of the Innocence Project was interested in representing Washington, and McCabria said he would hold off on appointing new counsel until Dubin had met with Washington. The judge scheduled a hearing for May 4 on the matter of new counsel.

The Innocence Project is a nonprofit organization that aims to exonerate individuals who it believes have been wrongly accused of crimes. Dubin currently represents Albert Wilson, who was recently granted a new trial in a Lawrence rape case, the Journal-World reported.

During the hearing, the court also discussed a motion prosecutors filed against Hall and Keck to hold them in civil contempt. Hall and Keck said they had retained counsel to represent them on that issue. It’s unclear what the motion is in regard to, as it was not discussed in detail during the hearing. McCabria set a hearing for April 27 for scheduling matters related to that motion.

Activist Natasha Neal, who is represented by attorney Sam Allison-Natale, was also asked to be present for the hearing on the motion, but it wasn’t clear why. She said in court she did not understand why she was being asked to appear and suggested there were more important things to focus on in the case. It’s also unclear what Neal’s involvement in the motion is.

McCabria said Neal would be required to show up in court for a future hearing on the contempt motion, but that she wouldn’t have to attend the scheduling hearing next week. He said he would meet with her privately to make sure she understood the court process.

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. Throughout the case, Hall and Keck had suggested Altamirano Mosso’s estranged husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz, as a possible alternative suspect.

According to an affidavit for the case, Washington told police he had entered Altamirano Mosso’s apartment looking for change to steal, which he said he had done before. During the trial, Washington had admitted to entering Altamirano Mosso’s apartment and seeing her body, but he maintained that he did not kill her.

The jury hung after Washington’s four-week trial in September 2019, and following delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, the retrial is currently scheduled to begin Sept. 27.

But the attorneys’ withdrawal from the case could affect whether that trial date will stand. It’s possible that new counsel for Washington would need more time to become familiar with the case.

Washington has waived his right to a speedy trial. While he spent about five years in jail with the case pending, he is currently out on bond.

Washington was initially represented in the case by attorney Sarah Swain, but she withdrew from the case in early 2016, according to court records. Hall and Keck were then appointed and represented Washington during the 2019 trial.

After serving as counsel for about five years, Hall and Keck last month filed motions to withdraw from the case, but it is not clear why they made that request. Hall said in a March 17 hearing that the defense believed the prosecutors in the case could gain a strategic advantage if they learned of defense counsel’s reason for requesting withdrawal.

During the March 17 hearing, McCabria met in private with counsel and Washington for almost two hours. Noting the high interest from the public in the case, McCabria said during a hearing on March 19 that he thought the meetings in private were justified because the court had been discussing matters of attorney-client privilege with the defense counsel. He also said he thought the time being taken on the matter was appropriate.

“It’s the nature and length of the case that leads the court to believe the time that we have taken has been justified,” McCabria said. “I appreciate that counsel are willing to address matters in a careful and thoughtful way,” he added.

During a hearing on March 25, McCabria initially approved the withdrawal request but rescinded his approval moments later. He said at the time he had forgotten to give Washington the opportunity to provide input on the matter. He then appointed Cline to serve as Washington’s counsel for the consideration of the withdrawal request from Hall and Keck.

After the hearing on Tuesday, the reason for the withdrawal request had still not been discussed publicly, and it remained unclear why the attorneys had made the request. However, McCabria said it was related to a “conflict of interest.”

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