Rontarus Washington Jr. wants to withdraw his guilty plea in Topeka robbery case, saying his attorney misled him; attorney says he did no such thing

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Rontarus Washington Jr. is pictured outside of a courtroom on Dec. 27, 2023, in Shawnee County District Court.

A man who spent over five years in the Douglas County Jail facing a murder charge appeared Tuesday in a Shawnee County courtroom to tell a judge that his guilty plea in a Topeka robbery case should be thrown out.

Rontarus Washington Jr., 27, of Topeka, told Judge Maban Wright that he entered the plea because he was “scared” and “rushed,” and he believed it was the only way to get out of jail and back to his son. However, his attorney at the time testified Tuesday that he was clear with Washington about what the plea meant and what his rights were.

Washington pleaded guilty on Oct. 31 of last year to one count of aggravated battery and one count of attempted robbery in connection with an incident on Aug. 24, 2023, at a convenience store in Topeka, where he is alleged to have stolen $702 after striking the cashier in the head with a pellet gun, as the Journal-World reported. Before the plea deal, he had been facing one felony count each of aggravated robbery, aggravated battery and interference with law enforcement, and one misdemeanor count of attempted battery on a law enforcement officer.

He was set to be sentenced on Dec. 27, but at that hearing he asked to withdraw his guilty plea and to dismiss his appointed attorney, Gary Conwell.

Washington testified Tuesday that he had met Conwell only once before his plea hearing and that Conwell did not review any evidence with him before that — a claim that Conwell contradicted.

Conwell was the second attorney appointed to Washington’s case after the first withdrew, citing a conflict. Conwell was appointed on Sept. 14, 2023. He testified Tuesday that he met Washington at least three times before the plea hearing.

Washington testified that he first met with Conwell at the Shawnee County Jail late at night. Having been in jail before, Washington said he was concerned with the time of day and how other inmates would see it.

“I’m scared. When you get pulled out of the cell house at weird hours, people maybe think you’re talking to the police,” Washington said.

Washington said that the meeting lasted about 20 to 30 minutes and that he and Conwell discussed very little. He claimed that Conwell was unprepared and “rushed” him through the meeting.

“He was learning about the case and presenting it at the same time,” Washington said of the meeting.

He said he told Conwell that he needed to get out of jail because he had recently gained custody of his 10-year-old son after the child’s mother died. He said he told Conwell he wanted to go to trial.

Conwell, however, testified that evening jail visits are routine for him. He said that he didn’t have any evidence to review with Washington at that time and that the two reviewed the police affidavit and briefly discussed a “frantic” call Conwell had received from Washington’s mother about the legal needs of Washington’s child, whose mother was killed in Mississippi.

He said Washington was asking him to make a motion to get him an own-recognizance bond, meaning Washington would not need to pay any money to be released, but Conwell said he didn’t believe the court would grant such a request without the prosecution agreeing and that he wouldn’t file the motion if he thought it was frivolous.

“I told him there was no way he would get an OR bond,” Conwell said.

Conwell said that he also met Washington again on Oct. 20, 2023, after he had received discovery from the prosecution. He said that at that meeting he asked Washington what his defense was, and Washington said, “It wasn’t me that committed the robbery.” Conwell then reviewed several pieces of evidence that weren’t in Washington’s favor.

Conwell said he was doubtful about the strength of the defense then and told Washington that they would come up with a better strategy; in the meantime, he said he would talk to the prosecution about a plea deal. He said that reducing the $150,000 bond was Washington’s top priority at that meeting.

Washington didn’t mention the Oct. 20 meeting in his testimony Tuesday and said that the next time he saw Conwell was at his scheduled preliminary hearing on Oct. 30, 2023, when Conwell told him that he had worked out a deal with the prosecution and that if he agreed to the deal his bond would be reduced. Washington waived his preliminary hearing, at which a judge would have determined whether probable cause existed for him to stand trial. The plea hearing took place the next day after he agreed to what Conwell told him, Washington said.

“It was very important to me to get home for my son,” Washington said. He agreed to the plea deal, he testified, because Conwell had assured him that it would mean getting out of jail.

Conwell, however, denied that he told Washington that the deal and his bond would go hand in hand. He said he told Washington that the prosecution would be more favorable but that the two issues were separate. He said that while he was negotiating the deal he mentioned a reduced bond to the prosecutor, Shawnee County Deputy District Attorney Shannon Szambecki, and she didn’t object to it.

Washington said that Conwell was quick to go over the plea documents and encouraged him to sign. Conwell, meanwhile, said that his review of the plea documents was a summary and that he didn’t go over it line by line because he believed Washington had plenty of experience with the criminal justice system.

Washington’s new attorney, Danielle Hamilton Slate, asked Conwell if he knew that Washington had no prior convictions.

“I knew of his murder charge in Douglas County that he got off on,” Conwell said.

Conwell said that he was confident that Washington knew what a preliminary hearing was and that Washington knew what a plea agreement was and why he was agreeing to it.

“I never got the impression that he did not know what was going on or had some disability,” Conwell said.

Szambecki on Tuesday pointed to several instances during the plea hearing when Washington assured the court that he understood what was happening. Slate, however, said that there was a moment when Washington specifically objected to the factual basis for the plea.

Slate said that during the plea hearing Szambecki described the facts in support of Washington’s guilty plea, and when the court asked if Washington agreed that the state could prove those facts, Washington said “no” and the court paused for Conwell to talk to Washington.

Conwell said Tuesday that he explained to Washington that supplying a factual basis was a formality necessary to a plea being accepted. Conwell said Washington was then satisfied and the hearing continued. Afterward, Washington was granted a reduced bond from $150,000 cash or surety down to $15,000 own recognizance.

Washington said Tuesday that he took the deal because it was a “lose-lose” situation.

Washington said he met with Conwell one more time before sentencing was to take place, and that final meeting was when he actually saw the evidence against him. He said he asked about withdrawing his plea and going to trial instead; he said that had he seen the evidence before he would not have agreed to the plea deal, and that’s why when sentencing came, he asked for Conwell to be removed.

Judge Wright said she would have to review the transcript from Tuesday’s hearing before making a ruling at a later date.

As the hearing concluded, Wright told Washington that withdrawing his plea came with a risk.

“Mr. Washington, if you are allowed to withdraw your plea, we will have to revisit your bond,” Wright said.

She explained that the charges that he pleaded to were presumptive probation charges on the Kansas sentencing grid, while one of his original charges, aggravated robbery, was a presumptive prison sentence.

“Be prepared for that in regards to child care,” Wright said.

In January 2015, Washington was charged with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary 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 then-District Attorney Charles Branson’s office in 2019, and the jury could not reach a verdict on either charge. He was in jail for more than five years.

The current Douglas County DA, Suzanne Valdez, dropped the first-degree murder case against Washington 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.

According to a lawsuit Washington filed claiming wrongful imprisonment, he retained or was assigned approximately seven attorneys during his Douglas County case — a big reason, the state argued, behind various delays in the proceedings. His lawsuit has since been dismissed.


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