Defense says judge should dismiss Washington murder case because of alleged misconduct; prosecutors say allegations lack evidence and trial should proceed
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
Defense attorneys for Rontarus Washington Jr. alleged at a hearing on Friday that witness tampering and other prosecutorial misconduct were so rife that the possibility of a fair trial for Washington was destroyed and that the murder case against him should be dismissed.
However, state prosecutors said those allegations were based on suspicions rather than evidence and that the defense’s motion to dismiss was frivolous.
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 attorneys, Adam Hall and Angela Keck, have suggested Mosso’s estranged husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz, as a possible alternative suspect.
A jury could not agree on a verdict after Washington’s four-week trial in September 2019. A second trial has been scheduled to begin Sept. 27.
The defense has alleged numerous prosecutorial errors and issues, including that the prosecution failed to disclose information about two witnesses that affected their credibility; failed to disclose potentially exculpatory information; tampered with witnesses, affecting the willingness of some to cooperate with the defense; and appeared to have had a “quid pro quo” with the estranged husband as part of its effort to convict Washington of the crime, as the Journal-World has previously reported. The defense attorneys have filed a motion to dismiss the case due to prosecutorial error or to disqualify the prosecutor.
On Friday, in the sixth hearing on several motions the defense filed after the first trial, the defense and prosecution made their final arguments to Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria regarding the motions. While speaking about the alleged witness tampering, Keck argued that the prosecution’s actions had left the defense without access to key witnesses and “totally obliterated” its ability to make its case.
“That has now tainted the case forever for any retrial, and that’s why we are asking for a dismissal,” Keck said.
In that alleged incident of witness tampering, the defense argued that, acting on orders from former prosecutor CJ Rieg, Detective David Garcia of the Lawrence Police Department took several of the Spanish-speaking witnesses to a conference room in the DA’s office on the first day of trial and that afterward those witnesses would no longer meet with the defense. Keck said because of the alleged witness tampering, the quid pro quo, and the other errors and omissions made by the prosecution, including disclosure of statements made by some of the victim’s family that they believed Cantu Ruiz was involved in the murder, it was not possible to get the “unbiased actual truth” about the case.
In the prosecution’s closing arguments, Deputy District Attorney David Melton reiterated that there was no evidence of a quid pro quo and that meeting notes and other records requested by the defense to potentially support such an agreement were not provided because they did not exist. He said that if the state failed to provide information that the defense thought affected the credibility of witnesses, it was not intentional or malicious. Melton said the comment that the victim’s family believed Cantu Ruiz was involved in the murder was a “30-second hallway conversation” that did not qualify as exculpatory information.
Regarding the incident with the Spanish-speaking witnesses, Melton said that they were only taken to the conference room to prevent them from having to wait in the hallway with jurors and others. He said Garcia, who speaks Spanish, was only there to help facilitate communication and not as a “show of force,” as claimed by the defense. In all issues, he said the remedy was not to dismiss the case, but to retry it.
“Regardless of what the court finds, the remedy is a new trial, which the defendant is receiving,” Melton said.
The next hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday. At that hearing, which is expected to be under an hour and to take place via Zoom, a discussion regarding procedures for retesting some footwear evidence will continue and a date will be set for the judge to rule on the pretrial motions, including the motion to dismiss the case.
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