Judge approves Innocence Project counsel for Lawrence murder case, notes current trial date could be pushed back

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Rontarus Washington Jr. appears in Douglas County District Court on Tuesday, May 4, 2021, with Tricia Bushnell, one of the three attorneys serving as his new counsel. Washington is also being represented by attorneys Melanie Morgan and Josh Dubin.

With new attorneys serving as defense counsel in Rontarus Washington Jr.’s long-running murder case, Judge James McCabria said Tuesday that he was not sure the current trial date for September would hold.

During a hearing in Douglas County District Court, McCabria approved Washington’s new counsel, which includes Kansas-based attorney Melanie Morgan and Josh Dubin and Tricia Bushnell of the Innocence Project. McCabria said he felt comfortable allowing Dubin and others to take over the defense in the case after hearing from Judge Sally Pokorny, who complimented Dubin’s handling of a case in her court.

But McCabria said he wasn’t sure whether the new attorneys would have enough time to get caught up on the case before the Sept. 27 trial date. Dubin told the court that he felt a more appropriate timeframe would be November or December. But McCabria said that because of the holidays and the likelihood that the complex trial would take about three weeks, it wouldn’t be able to begin until January or February.

However, Deputy District Attorney Josh Seiden asked the court to keep the September trial date for the time being because the case is already six years old, which McCabria said he would do. In the meantime, McCabria scheduled two status conference hearings in the coming months to check in with the defense, with the possibility of pushing the trial date back in the future.

Dubin said part of the reason the case may take longer to prepare is because the defense was exploring “new experts on many fronts” to testify in the case. McCabria noted the prosecution also has new counsel in Seiden, who has stepped in to fill the role that former prosecutor Alice Walker was serving in the case. A spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office said Tuesday that Walker had left her position with the DA’s office.

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, Washington’s former counsel 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. Washington waived his right to a speedy trial. He spent about five years in jail with the case pending, and he is currently out on bond.

Washington was initially represented 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 withdrew from the case, but it is not clear why they made that request. However, McCabria said it was related to a “conflict of interest.”

When the withdrawal was approved, Dubin, who is based in New York City, asked the judge for time to meet with Washington for the purposes of taking over the defense. He said the Innocence Project was interested in taking on the case and would likely work with the project’s Midwest chapter.

Bushnell, who appeared in court with Washington on Tuesday, is the executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, based in Kansas City, Mo., according to the organization’s website.

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

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