Rontarus Washington Jr.’s longtime defense counsel has withdrawn from the case, but it seems they’ll be replaced by the Midwest Innocence Project plus one of the two attorneys who recently argued — successfully — that Albert Wilson should get a new trial.
Adam Hall and Angela Keck represented Washington for the majority of the the long-running Douglas County District Court case. Washington was first charged in March 2015 in connection with the death of a woman who lived down the hall in his apartment building. The jury hung after a trial in September 2019, and prosecutors requested a retrial; that has been pending since as the attorneys have argued numerous motions and held hearings on new evidence.
But Hall and Keck filed motions to withdraw from the case last month, and they and Washington have met with Chief Judge James McCabria behind closed doors during multiple hearings to talk about the issues in recent weeks. McCabria also appointed another attorney, Carol Cline, to counsel Washington on his rights in the situation.
Washington told McCabria Tuesday that he would not “waive the conflict,” so the judge granted Hall’s and Keck’s motions to withdraw from the case. The details of the issues, including the nature of the conflict, have not been discussed in open court.
Then Hall asked the judge to call Joshua Dubin, innocence ambassador, because he had requested to be heard that day.
Dubin, along with appellate defender Michael Whalen, recently argued that Albert Wilson, who was convicted in a Lawrence rape case, should get a new trial because he didn’t receive adequate legal representation. They were successful and Wilson’s case is pending, but he is again presumed innocent, and he has been released from prison.
Dubin, reached on a conference line during Washington’s court hearing, told the judge that he had spoken with the executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, and that group had agreed to step in and represent Washington going forward.
Dubin, who is based in New York, said he wasn’t sure yet of all the logistics and exactly who Washington’s local counsel would be. But he said those details will be worked out in the next couple of weeks. The next hearing is set for 2 p.m. Tuesday, May 4.
The MIP, according to its website, only accepts cases in which the defendant has been convicted and has more than 10 years left to serve on their sentence.
The Times could not immediately reach Dubin or Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the MIP, for comment Tuesday.
New prosecutor joins the case
In addition to the defense team changing, the prosecution team has changed again, too.
Former Senior Assistant District Attorney Alice Walker’s last day at the office was April 16, according to Jill Jess, public information officer for the DA’s office. Walker is now working for the attorney disciplinary office in Topeka, online records show. Joshua Seiden, deputy district attorney, has joined fellow Deputy DA David Melton on the case this week.
CJ Rieg, former chief assistant DA, represented the state during Washington’s first trial. Rieg moved on to a new position in March 2020 but stayed on Washington’s case for about five additional months, and Walker had joined as co-counsel a few months after the mistrial. Rieg withdrew in August 2020, however, and Melton joined Walker on the case.
Seiden, who previously worked as a defense attorney in Douglas County, took office with newly elected District Attorney Suzanne Valdez in January.
With the withdrawal of Hall and Keck, Melton’s roughly seven months will actually make him the attorney with the longest tenure on this case, which has been pending for more than six years.
The victim, Justina Altamirano Mosso, was found slain in her apartment Nov. 9, 2014.
At the end of court, Melton told the judge that the state still wanted a hearing on its motion to hold Hall and Keck in civil contempt. As the Times reported, the motion was recently filed under seal.
Online court records indicate that a motion to show cause has been filed in response, but it is also under seal, according to the court clerk. Keck told the judge she and Hall have retained Topeka attorney Christopher Joseph.
More coverage: Rontarus Washington Jr. case
• March 25, 2021: Defense counsel will stay on Rontarus Washington Jr. case, for now
— Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached via email at email@example.com or 785-422-6363.