Rontarus Washington Jr.’s murder trial pushed to a year from now; judge expresses frustration over continued delays

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Rontarus Washington Jr. appears in Douglas County District Court on Friday, July 16, 2021, alongside attorney Tricia Bushnell. Washington's other attorney, Melanie Morgan, appeared in court through a video stream.

Rontarus Washington Jr. will no longer face a second jury trial this September in his long-running murder case, as the Douglas County District Court allowed the trial to be delayed another year.

During a hearing on Friday, Judge James McCabria approved a request from Washington’s new defense counsel to push the trial to July 2022. However, before doing so, he expressed frustration with both the defense and prosecuting attorneys for delays in the case.

While the four-week trial was scheduled to begin on Sept. 27, McCabria said at an earlier hearing that he knew that date may not stand as a new schedule was established. But during Friday’s hearing, he focused on how the attorneys were not prepared to schedule other important dates for the case.

“Frankly, I can’t understand it,” McCabria said.

Originally, the attorneys were expected to lay out a schedule of deadlines for the case on Friday, such as when experts and other witnesses need to be notified to appear in court and other details. But both defense attorney Melanie Morgan and Deputy District Attorney Josh Seiden told the court they were not prepared to do that.

In May, the court allowed Morgan to begin serving as Washington’s new counsel, along with attorneys from the Innocence Project — Josh Dubin and Tricia Bushnell — after his former counsel withdrew from the case. The Innocence Project is a nonprofit organization that aims to exonerate people whom it believes to have been wrongly accused.

Seiden recently took over the case for the prosecution, as former prosecuting attorney David Melton left the District Attorney’s Office.

Morgan told the court that neither side was ready for the scheduling on Friday because of a delay in disclosing the discovered evidence in the case. She said because both the defense and prosecution attorneys were new to the case, they chose to re-disclose all of the evidence through a third party and that more came back then either side expected.

Morgan also said the evidence was provided to them two weeks ago, which she said was not enough time to thoroughly examine it.

While McCabria was still noticeably frustrated, he pushed the hearing for scheduling to Sept. 27 — the same day the trial was supposed to begin. He said he expected both the defense and prosecution to be prepared to move forward with the scheduling at that time.

Additionally, McCabria said he understood that the defense may find it is in its best interest for the case to be delayed, but he said the prosecution had a responsibility to move faster. He said the amount of time the case has taken should mean it has priority over others, suggesting there should not be any more delays. He also noted that the new 2022 date would be 34 months after Washington originally stood trial in the case in September 2019, which resulted in a hung jury.

“The state has the obligation to bring this case to trial and to do so timely, and in this court’s mind, given the trial date we have just set, I don’t know how we could not meet that deadline,” McCabria said.

Washington, 25, 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, 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 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. He 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.

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