Court approves attorneys’ request to withdraw from long-running murder case, but moments later rescinds order

photo by: Hearing screenshot/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 March 25, 2021. This screenshot was obtained by the Journal-World with permission provided by the court.

Updated at 11:50 a.m. Thursday

Rontarus Washington Jr. on Thursday was set to have new counsel defending him in a murder case, likely prolonging the already six-year-old case. But a judge quickly rescinded his order allowing the change of counsel to make sure Washington’s input was considered.

During a hearing Thursday morning, Judge James McCabria initially approved a request from Washington’s current attorneys — Adam Hall and Angela Keck — to withdraw from the case. McCabria said that he would appoint new counsel to represent Washington but that it may take time to decide who that will be. McCabria set the next court hearing in the case for Tuesday.

“This is a complex case with a long history,” McCabria said. “Finding attorneys on our local panel who have the time to take the case up is going to require that I do more than just go down the list and pick the next attorney.”

However, shortly after the hearing, McCabria recalled the case back to court, where he temporarily rescinded his approval of the request. He said during the second hearing Thursday morning that he had forgotten to give Washington an opportunity to provide input on how he wanted to proceed.

McCabria said part of Washington’s input would be related to the legal matter in his attorneys’ request to withdraw. He appointed attorney Carol Cline to briefly represent Washington for the purposes of Hall’s and Keck’s withdrawal requests. While he set the Tuesday hearing time, McCabria noted that it could change depending on Cline’s schedule.

“I’m withdrawing my decision from earlier, for at least as long as it takes for Mr. Washington to be able to meet with Ms. Cline and inform the court what his request is,” McCabria said during the second hearing.

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, Hall and Keck, have 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 Mosso’s apartment looking for change to steal, which he said he had done before. During the trial, Washington had admitted to entering 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 decision for Hall and Keck to withdraw from the case could affect whether that trial date will stand. It’s possible that new appointed counsel for Washington may need more time to become familiar with the case than the six months left before the September trial date.

Washington 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 week 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. After the discussion, McCabria said he planned to rule on the request on Friday, but later delayed the ruling to Thursday.

Noting the high interest from the public in the case, McCabria said during the hearing on Friday 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.

After the hearing on Thursday, the reason for the withdrawal request had still not been discussed publicly and it remained unclear why Hall and Keck had requested it.

Contact Dylan Lysen

Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact reporter Dylan Lysen:


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.