Article updated with hearing results at 10:45 a.m. Friday, March 19:
A long-pending murder case in Douglas County District Court might end up pending for quite a bit longer if the judge grants defense counsel’s request to withdraw.
But just prior to those requests, the defense team filed an additional motion pushing for the case to be dismissed or immediately disqualify the prosecutor’s office “based on admitted bias and incompetence.”
Rontarus Washington Jr., 24, was 18 when he was first arrested and charged with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary in connection with the November 2014 death of Justina Altamirano Mosso, a woman who lived down the hall from him.
Defense attorneys Adam Hall and Angela Keck were appointed to the case back in January 2016, a few months after Washington was bound over for trial. The case was long delayed leading up to Washington’s first trial, in September 2019, generally because of requests to seek, test or translate additional evidence.
The jury hung after the first four-week trial, and the retrial is pending. It’s been tentatively set to begin in September of this year.
However, if new defense counsel is appointed, it could take substantial time to catch up on the evidence and the case’s long history.
For instance, as of December 2020, more than 6,000 pages of court transcripts alone had been prepared in the case, and there have been multiple long evidence hearings since. The public portion of the case file is more than 2,000 additional pages.
Washington, Keck and Hall met with Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria for nearly two hours behind closed doors at the courthouse Wednesday morning to discuss the reasons that they seek to withdraw. Their motions simply state that “Professional considerations require termination of the representation.”
The judge said he will rule on those requests at another hearing set for 8:30 a.m. Friday because on Thursday, a footwear expert was set to travel to Lawrence from Florida to examine evidence in person on behalf of the defense.
Before they filed their motions to withdraw, Keck and Hall filed an additional memorandum and a supplement in support of their pending motion to dismiss the case.
Prosecutors also have asked the court to address their motion for a gag order in the case, which was filed under seal Monday.
Update, 10:45 a.m. Friday, March 19: The judge did not rule on defense counsel’s motion to withdraw Friday.
A majority of the hour and a half of the hearing was again out of the public eye. The judge explained that the issues involve privileged attorney-client matters. He said he will continue to consider his decision. The next hearing is set for 8:30 a.m. Thursday, March 25.
Recapping the issues
As the Times reported last week, District Attorney Suzanne Valdez sent an email to the judge March 9 regarding a report she had just learned of involving the defense’s alternative suspect in the case, Altamirano’s estranged husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz.
During Washington’s trial, Cantu testified about having a bad relationship with Altamirano. She had been unfaithful, which had angered him, and she’d moved out of the apartment they shared a few weeks before her death.
Cantu had been arrested on suspicion of domestic battery against Altamirano in March 2014, but he was not charged. In addition, Altamirano’s boyfriend told police in an interview after her death that a few weeks prior, in October 2014, she had told him Cantu had forced her to have sex with him and choked her, according to documents in the case file. The boyfriend said he called police when Altamirano told him that, but jail records show Cantu was not arrested at that time.
In the early hours of the day investigators believe Altamirano was killed, Nov. 7, 2014, Cantu had called and messaged her numerous times until her boyfriend eventually answered the phone. Cantu also testified that he thought Altamirano might be pregnant, though he didn’t know who the father was. He said he decided that morning that he was going to move to Manhattan to get a new start.
Prosecutors have said Cantu could not have killed Altamirano because, as a detective testified at the trial, records showed that Cantu’s phone was pinging cellphone towers en route to Manhattan at the time investigators said they believed Altamirano was killed. Cantu had also taken a selfie in the bathroom of a rest stop near Paxico and sent it to a friend via Facebook messenger; however, the detective said the original photo was not recovered from the phone.
Hall and Keck have suggested Cantu as an alternative suspect in the homicide because of this history with Altamirano, about which he testified during the trial and prior, as well as some physical evidence that they have said could indicate he was the killer. After the trial, they filed motions seeking to use additional evidence that they said points to Cantu’s possible involvement.
In the incident Valdez referenced in her email last week, a woman had reportedly told Lawrence police that Cantu had attempted to sexually assault her on March 20, 2017, while he was drunk at her home. The woman said she made some noise to wake her husband, and she was injured in the middle of a scuffle that ensued. Officers were unable to locate Cantu, according to the police report.
Valdez said in the email that she thought it important to “disclose this revelation” to the court promptly, as the judge was planning to rule on several defense motions, including one to dismiss the case due to prosecutorial error, later that week.
Hall and Keck have raised questions about Cantu receiving a U visa — a special type of visa that allows undocumented people to remain in the United States if they have been victims of a crime — despite multiple DUI cases, starting in 2014. They have said they believe the state could be giving Cantu favorable treatment in exchange for his testimony against Washington.
Being charged with a serious crime could preclude someone from obtaining U visa status. According to an April 2020 report by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, less than 1% of those approved for U visas had arrest records listing charges for sexual assault, rape, murder, manslaughter, confirmed or suspected membership in a gang, or human smuggling. “USCIS approved some of these cases after considering the individual facts presented within the filings.”
Court and jail records show that Cantu was arrested for a felony DUI — a third or subsequent DUI conviction — on Nov. 27, 2014, a few weeks after Altamirano’s death.
On May 27, 2016, former Chief Judge Robert Fairchild sentenced Cantu to serve 48 hours in jail followed by 2,160 hours (90 days) of house arrest with work release, and then 12 months of probation. Fairchild also presided over Washington’s case at the time, until he retired a few months later.
Paperwork included with a recent defense motion in Washington’s case shows that former District Attorney Charles Branson signed documents to help Cantu get a U visa on July 28, 2016, noting that he had been “cooperative with the police throughout the investigation into his wife’s murder,” and that he had testified against Washington at the preliminary hearing in September 2015.
Cantu signed his probation paperwork on March 2, 2017, a couple of weeks before the alleged sex crime attempt.
Cantu’s probation officer filed an affidavit June 9, 2017, alleging that Cantu had violated his probation conditions by failing to report, pay $2,904 in fines and costs, or complete alcohol assessments and treatment recommendations.
There was no mention of the March report.
Cantu failed to appear in court to answer to the alleged violations. McCabria issued a warrant for Cantu’s arrest for the alleged probation violations and failure to appear in court on Aug. 8, 2017. The warrant was outstanding until March 22, 2019, when he was arrested and booked into the Douglas County Jail.
Cantu paid the $2,904 he owed as bond to be released from the jail and completed the drug and alcohol assessment. Then-Senior Assistant District Attorney Alice Walker requested to withdraw the affidavit alleging the probation violations and released Cantu from supervision in May 2019, according to court records and a transcript referenced during motions hearings.
The defense has said this showed that the prosecutors were lenient toward Cantu.
During a hearing Monday afternoon, Hall said that as a result of a May 2018 subpoena for records, he had received a police report and narrative about the 2017 incident involving Cantu. However, he said he had not received the probable cause affidavit, nor any information about whether the affidavit was submitted to the DA’s office to consider charges or, if it was, what happened to it when it got there.
Kim Murphree, records manager for the Lawrence Police Department, testified Monday that when she responds to subpoenas like the one Hall had submitted for those records on Cantu, she normally would include such affidavits. However, nothing in the records specifically showed that she had done so in response to this subpoena, she said.Response-to-Request
The Lawrence Times on Thursday requested any and all emails sent to, from or between any members of the Douglas County district attorney’s staff regarding the incident report, beginning in March 2017. The request was denied under three exemptions from the Kansas Open Records Act: criminal investigation records, work product of an attorney and public records containing “information of a personal nature where the public disclosure thereof would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy are not required to be disclosed.”
In addition, the state filed a motion Friday to seal Valdez’s email, the police report and the probable cause affidavit, but the judge denied that motion Monday, and redacted versions have become exhibits in Washington’s case file.
In her email, Valdez wrote that “My office needs to resolve the 2017 unfiled matter involving Mr. Cantu Ruiz. I plan to have the report and affidavit reviewed for a charging decision by another district or county attorney’s office as soon as possible.”
In a motion in the case Monday, Keck wrote that Valdez seeking an outside review of the report on Cantu showed that the prosecutors were admitting they can’t objectively investigate Cantu — meaning they are conflicted from further prosecution of Washington.
Keck also wrote that the defense “has provided the state with several items of inculpatory evidence” relating to Cantu’s possible involvement as “one of the perpetrators” of Altamirano’s homicide, but the state has not followed up or assigned it for investigation.
“This prosecution team has a bias that is turning a blind eye to justice for Rontarus Washington,” Keck wrote in the supplemental motion to dismiss.
At Monday’s hearing, Deputy District Attorney David Melton asked that the judge summarily deny or disregard Keck’s motion, saying the filing was “unworthy of attorneys of Mr. Hall’s and Ms. Keck’s experience.”
“This court knows Ms. Walker and myself,” Melton said. “This court knows whether or not we’re unethical or incompetent, and based on that the court should be able to rule.”
Keck responded that the defense would ask the court not to rule yet — ”the state doesn’t want us to present all this evidence to the court that shows exactly what we stated in the motion,” but they have a right to a hearing, she said.
McCabria declined to rule at that time. He also noted that there “appears to be some small amount of personal animus” between counsel that was not helpful to either side.
Tensions have become tangible in the courtroom, and tomorrow will make three of five days this week that Washington, both defense attorneys and both prosecutors will appear. It’s not yet clear how McCabria’s ruling on defense counsel’s motions to withdraw, filed Tuesday afternoon, will impact the many pending motions in the case.
Why it matters
Many supporters who believe in Washington’s innocence have said they think he was targeted as a young Black man who put himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when he spoke with police, trying to be helpful as detectives called him their “star witness.” He told them in an interview that he saw Altamirano’s apartment door open, tried to call inside but didn’t hear a response, walked in and found her. He said it didn’t look like she was breathing, and he turned and ran out of the apartment, scared that he would be blamed for her death if he called police.
Supporters have highlighted how long he spent in jail awaiting trial, while, they say, a violent killer — whether that’s the defense’s alternative suspect, or an unknown person — was out on the streets. They have emphasized that they’re not only interested in “justice for Rontarus,” but also “justice for Justina,” the 19-year-old who was bludgeoned and stabbed to death.
Washington spent close to 5 ½ years in the custody of the Douglas County Jail after his arrest in January 2015. Amid the pandemic, his bond was reduced from $750,000 cash or surety to $500,000 on July 1, 2020. After just a few hours, community crowdfunding raised roughly $50,000 necessary to bond him out, and some local businesses helped with collateral. He was released that evening with an electronic ankle monitor.
Washington’s supporters have said that learning of the 2017 allegation against Cantu last week was heartbreaking because they fear it could be additional evidence pointing to a propensity for violence. They want to know why the case was not prosecuted.
Supporters also point to cases such as that of Albert Wilson, who was just granted a new trial earlier this week, and well-documented racial disparities in the population of the local jail. Douglas County’s Black incarceration rate is nearly 5 times its white incarceration rate.
Race and immigration status were key points during the three days of jury selection in September 2019 as potential jurors were asked about any biases they might hold toward Black people, undocumented people or Spanish-speakers.
The issue of race has also come front and center at times in the many days of evidence hearings following the trial.
While arguing motions in February, Hall quoted racist statements Cantu reportedly made to the defense investigator about Black people in December 2020, saying that “No one wants them here. No one likes them here,” and that they are drug users and thieves. Hall said evidence of a witness’s prejudice is always relevant in Kansas, and the defense should be allowed to use these statements in Washington’s retrial.
Walker argued that Cantu did make disparaging comments about Black people, but she said the defense did not share the reason why; if the statements of prejudice could be used, the context should, too. In the same conversation, Cantu went on to tell the defense investigator that “your client” was extorting money from a family on the block, and from “all the Mexicans,” Walker said.
Walker has also said Cantu was afraid to give the defense team his location because he was concerned for his own safety. However, that sentiment seems to go both ways. During a brief hearing via Zoom last month, Washington told the judge that he was in fear for his life because “this man is texting me and my mom.”
The Times will report on the results of the hearing Friday.