Douglas County DA dismissing high-profile rape and murder cases
photo by: Journal-World File Photos
Story updated at 7:41 p.m. Wednesday:
The Douglas County District Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday that it is dismissing two high-profile cases: one a long-running murder case and the other a rape case that garnered national attention.
In two separate news releases Wednesday, District Attorney Suzanne Valdez said that she had moved to formally dismiss the first-degree murder case against Rontarus Washington Jr. and the rape case against Albert Wilson.
In her statement about Washington’s case, Valdez said her office could re-try him on the first-degree murder charge for allegedly killing 19-year-old Justina Altamirano Mosso — a case that resulted in a hung jury in 2019.
But she said she now believes her office shouldn’t continue with the case. She said continuing with the prosecution could have an adverse effect on witnesses called to testify and the Douglas County community.
“Upon extensive review of this case, as well as a meticulous assessment of potential outcomes and adverse impacts of proceeding with the retrial, it is with a heavy heart that I have elected to cease prosecution in this matter at this time,” Valdez said in the statement. “This is by no means an indictment of the many fine law enforcement officers, specifically of the Lawrence Police Department, who spent countless hours investigating this matter to exhaustion and who worked tirelessly to seek justice for Ms. Mosso.
“A particular legal maxim holds true here: Justice delayed is justice denied,” she added.
photo by: Contributed photos
Washington, 25, was charged with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary in connection with the November 2014 death of Altamirano Mosso, who was his neighbor. Throughout the case, his former attorneys Adam Hall and Angela Keck had suggested Altamirano Mosso’s estranged husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz, as a possible alternative suspect.
According to an affidavit in 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. He has waived his right to a speedy trial. He spent about five years in jail while the case was pending, but he is currently out on bond. A number of community protests in support of Washington have occurred over the years. After the largest one, in the summer of 2020, his bond was significantly reduced, and community members raised the funds necessary to free him from jail pending trial.
photo by: Journal-World
Meanwhile, Valdez said she chose not to retry Wilson because his case would be resolved through restorative justice measures, which she said the alleged victim in the case supported.
Valdez said her office initially offered a plea deal to Wilson, but negotiations with Wilson’s attorneys did not result in an agreement. Without that agreement, she said her office then approached the alleged victim about another possible resolution.
“In keeping with this office’s trauma-informed approach to criminal prosecution, we sought the survivor’s input and gauged her expectations and objectives,” Valdez said. “She wanted to address Mr. Wilson directly and to convey to him the impact this entire experience has had on her.”
A jury in January 2019 convicted Wilson, now 25, of one count of rape in connection with a Sept. 11, 2016, incident. Wilson was sentenced to serve 12.5 years in prison.
photo by: Sara Shepherd
As the Journal-World has reported, the alleged victim, who was 17 at the time, met Wilson at The Hawk, a popular bar near the University of Kansas campus. She testified that she was drunk and that Wilson, then a 20-year-old KU student, lifted her skirt and assaulted her at the bar and then walked her to his house a couple of blocks away, raped her, then walked her back to the bar.
Wilson was convicted of rape for the incident at the house, but the jury hung on the incident at the bar.
On appeal, Wilson was represented by two attorneys, Michael Whalen and Josh Dubin. In their arguments, they said the case came down to the girl’s credibility. That was key in a number of specific points they made, but one particular focus was on data from the girl’s phone. If Wilson’s appointed attorney, Forrest Lowry, had realized he had certain additional evidence, including text messages and photos from the girl’s phone, he could have more effectively cross-examined her and others who testified, they wrote.
Judge Sally Pokorny agreed, saying questions could have been raised based on thousands of text messages, which had not been used as evidence in the trial, to influence the jury’s decision. She then ordered a new trial for Wilson. Valdez said thereafter that she would try to resolve the case without going to trial a second time.
Wilson’s case garnered the attention of celebrities like Kim Kardashian, who shared news articles and petitions that criticized Wilson’s conviction.
In both cases, Washington and Wilson were partly being represented by Dubin, an attorney with the Innocence Project. The Innocence Project is a nonprofit organization that aims to exonerate individuals who it believes have been wrongly accused of crimes.
“I am relieved and overjoyed for these young men,” Dubin said in an email to the Journal-World. “In Mr. Wilson ‘s case, I want to acknowledge my co-counsel Mike Whalen — without whom this result would have not been possible. In Mr. Washington’s case, my co-counsel Melanie Morgan of Morgan & Pilate, as well as Tricia Bushnell of the Midwest Innocence Project — along with their amazing teams — were angels in my corner and I am forever grateful for their guidance and advocacy on Mr. Washington’s behalf.”