Douglas County and sheriffs named in federal lawsuit deny claims of wrongful incarceration by Rontarus Washington Jr.

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.

Douglas County and the sheriffs, former and present, named in a federal lawsuit filed by Rontarus Washington Jr. for wrongful incarceration are seeking dismissal of the case based on qualified immunity, the statute of limitations and failure to specify a violation.

The lawsuit was filed on Feb. 15 by Washington’s attorney Larry Michel, of the Kennedy Berkley law office of Salina, and names former Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson, Sheriff Jay Armbrister and former sheriffs Ken McGovern and Randy Roberts as defendants, along with Douglas County generally, as the Journal World reported.

In the initial notice of the suit sent in July of 2022 to the county, Michel said that Washington, 26, of Hinesville, Georgia, would be seeking an amount to exceed $3 million for wrongful incarceration, lost wages, mental anguish and loss of society.

The suit was filed after Washington spent more than five years in the Douglas County Jail charged with the murder of Justina Altamirano Mosso, 19, whose body was found Nov. 9, 2014, at her Lawrence apartment after having been repeatedly bludgeoned and stabbed. No one else has been charged in connection with her death, and the case remains unsolved.

photo by: Contributed photos

Photos of Justina Altamirano Mosso, 19, provided by the Lawrence Police Department.

Washington was eventually tried by Branson’s office in 2019, and the jury could not reach a verdict. He was released on July 1, 2020, after his bond was reduced from $750,000 to $500,000 and a community effort raised the money to post his bail.

The case was dismissed without prejudice on Dec. 22, 2021, by current District Attorney Suzanne Valdez, about a year after she was elected as DA.

The county’s response was filed Wednesday by Michael K. Seck with Fisher, Patterson, Sayler & Smith LLP, of Overland Park.

The response requested a dismissal on behalf of the county and the sheriffs based on a lack of specificity by Washington’s attorney regarding actions taken by the sheriffs that would amount to wrongdoing.

Washington’s claim states that Washington was “subjected to lawful but wrongful legal process which resulted in his imprisonment for five and a half years,” and that the “Defendants had customs or policies which led to Rontarus’ constitutional rights being violated by Defendants.”

The county’s response claims that these descriptions do not adequately explain the alleged violations committed by the sheriffs or what county policies led to any violations; the suit also fails to actually name the defendants in those descriptions as required by Kansas tort laws.

The response also seeks dismissal on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired for Washington’s wrongful incarceration and malicious prosecution claim; the suit should have been filed on or before Dec. 27, 2022, one year after the charges against Washington were dismissed without prejudice, the response claims. The lawsuit was filed on Feb. 15, 2023.

The response also claims that the sheriffs “enjoy qualified immunity” which “protects public officials who are required to exercise their discretion, shielding them from personal liability for civil damages.”

“Qualified immunity is immunity from suit, not just a defense to liability,” the response says.

The response denies the claim that Washington was wrongfully incarcerated and denied due process. Washington was detained lawfully with a bond of $750,000 and was awaiting trial for the majority of his imprisonment, and while there were many continuances in the case, most of those continuances were due to Washington being assigned approximately seven different attorneys at various points, according to the response.

The response also denies that Washington was subjected to “malicious prosecution” because “the criminal proceeding did not result in a favorable termination.” Since charges were dismissed against Washington without prejudice, meaning they can be refiled, there is no court order or statement from a judge determining that Washington was in any way exonerated on the charges, which is required by state law to prove “malicious prosecution,” according to the response.

County’s response:

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