Rontarus Washington Jr. sues Douglas County, former DA and current sheriff for wrongful imprisonment

photo by: Journal-World

Rontarus Washington Jr., center, walks out of the Douglas County Jail with his mother, Kenisha Clark, at left, and a bondsman on July 1, 2020. In the background is Lawrence activist Caleb Stephens.

A man whose Douglas County murder case was dismissed has filed suit against Douglas County’s former district attorney and its current sheriff for wrongful imprisonment and violation of his constitutional rights.

The federal lawsuit, filed Wednesday by the Kennedy Berkley law office of Salina on behalf of Rontarus Washington Jr., names former DA Charles Branson and Sheriff Jay Armbrister as defendants, along with Douglas County generally.

Washington, 26, of Hinesville, Georgia, was charged in January 2015 in the death of his then-neighbor Justina Altamirano Mosso, 19, who was found Nov. 9, 2014, at her Lawrence apartment after having been repeatedly bludgeoned and stabbed. Washington was eventually tried by Branson’s office in 2019, and the jury could not reach a verdict. He was in jail for more than five years.

The current district attorney, Suzanne Valdez, dropped the first-degree murder case against him on Dec. 22, 2021, saying she had elected to “cease prosecution” and that “justice delayed was justice denied.” The case was dismissed without prejudice on Dec. 27, 2021, meaning it could be brought again.

Washington’s suit alleges that he was “subjected to lawful but wrongful legal process which resulted in his imprisonment for five and a half years.” The suit cites the Kansas Torts Claim Act and says the defendants had “customs or policies which led to Rontarus’ constitutional rights being violated.”

The suit also alleges that the defendants “failed to fully and adequately investigate” the case, resulting in the deprivation of Washington’s constitutional rights, and that they failed to “diligently and timely prosecute Rontarus’ case to its logical conclusion.”

The suit states that “it is Rontarus’ understanding that his case was dismissed because the Defendants had arrested, incarcerated and tried the wrong man.” The suit further states that “another suspect was eventually arrested and charged with the murder … That suspect was Felipe Cantu, her husband.”

The Journal-World reached out to the district attorney’s office to verify whether someone else had been charged in the case.

The DA’s spokesperson, Cheryl Cadue, referred the Journal-World to the Dec. 22, 2021, statement by Valdez and said simply that “nothing has changed.”

Throughout the case, two of Washington’s former attorneys, Adam Hall and Angela Keck, had suggested Altamirano Mosso’s estranged husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz, as a possible alternative suspect.

The Journal-World also reached out to Armbrister, Branson, the county and Lawrence police for comment.

Armbrister declined to comment, saying, “As is our protocol, we will not comment on any current or pending litigation.”

Sgt. Drew Fennelly with LPD told the Journal-World Wednesday that he had not heard about any additional arrests in the case but was going to check with LPD’s Investigations Division.

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 disposition of his case was delayed so that Washington could undergo evaluations to determine whether he was competent to stand trial. He waived his right to a speedy trial. He also was assigned or retained “approximately seven different attorneys,” the suit filed Wednesday says, which caused numerous delays.

The suit says that Washington suffers from an intellectual disability and was “not in a position to appreciate how the numerous motions to continue his criminal case would affect the length of his pre-trial confinement.”

A number of community protests in support of Washington occurred over the years. After the largest one, in the summer of 2020, his bond was significantly reduced, from $750,000 to $500,000, and community members raised the funds necessary to free him from jail pending trial. The second trial, which was scheduled for the summer of 2022, never came, however, as Valdez had dropped the case about a year after she took office.

Washington’s lawsuit requests judgment in an amount exceeding $75,000, which is a jurisdictional requirement in federal court, plus reasonable attorney fees and further relief as the court deems “fair and equitable in the circumstances.”

In a letter dated July 22, 2022, to the Douglas County clerk, attorney Larry Michel notified the county that Washington intended to sue for more than $3 million for wrongful incarceration, lost wages, mental anguish and loss of society.


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