Washington, now 26, spent nearly 5 1/2 years in jail before murder case was dismissed
Rontarus Washington Jr., who spent several years behind bars charged with murder in a case that was eventually dismissed, has taken the first step toward filing a $3 million wrongful incarceration lawsuit against Douglas County.
The action comes about seven months after the abrupt conclusion of one of the longest-pending criminal cases in recent memory in Douglas County District Court.
Washington’s attorney for this matter — Larry Michel, of the Salina-based firm Kennedy Berkley — sent the county a notice of claim in July. The claim seeks $3 million in damages for Washington’s “wrongful incarceration, lost wages, mental anguish, and for loss of society.”
“Rontarus was held for a lengthy period of time, he was released from custody on a reduced bond, and then the charges against him were dismissed,” Michel writes in the notice of claim. “… In the words of your own District Attorney: ‘The degree to which this matter has been permitted to languish calls into question the integrity of the criminal justice system.’ We could not agree more.”
Washington was first arrested in January 2015 in his hometown of Greenville, Mississippi. He was extradited to Kansas and formally charged in March 2015 with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary. He was 18 years old.
A jury could not come to a verdict following a four-week trial in September 2019. Preparation for a retrial was complicated by COVID-19, but the case was moving forward until Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez dismissed it in December 2021.
Washington was 25 years old by that point.
Over the course of the nearly seven years that the case was ongoing, Washington waived his right to a speedy trial. Most of the delays in the case were requested by his defense attorneys as they sought further evidence, further DNA testing, expert witnesses, translations of messages and interviews with Spanish-speaking witnesses, mental health examinations and more.
“I do believe that, to a large extent, these delays were attributable to the flaws or failures in the process, and not him just trying to delay the ultimate resolution of the case,” Michel said. “So certainly, I’m sure the county is going to make a big point of the fact that the requests were made by his defense attorneys. But I think also at some point in time, you look at the real reason for the delay — and I think, regardless of who’s requesting the continuance, you get to a certain point in time where the case needs to be decided or dismissed.
“And I think everybody would agree that holding somebody in jail for five and a half years is way too long. To me, that’s inexcusable, and it’s actually kind of scary that somebody can have your freedom denied for five and a half years and then the charges are dismissed,” Michel said.
Justina Altamirano Mosso, 19, came to the United States from the small town of Iliatenco in Guerrero, Mexico.
She was the mother of a young daughter who stayed behind in the care of family members, and she worked long hours at two jobs. Investigators found piles of children’s clothes and toys among her possessions, presumably intended to be sent to her daughter. A friend described her as fun to spend time with; she liked to dance, and she “couldn’t stand still.”
Altamirano Mosso had lived with her husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz, in an apartment down the hall from where Washington had lived in November 2014 at 1727 W. 24th St. in Lawrence. A few weeks prior to her death, she had moved in with a cousin in an apartment complex nearby — the couple had fought a lot, and Cantu Ruiz knew she had a boyfriend.
After a big argument, Cantu Ruiz told Altamirano Mosso he was going to move to Manhattan the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. She returned to the apartment that day after she thought he had left, telling the cousin that she was going to bring back some chairs because they needed more for their apartment.
Law enforcement found her two days later, slumped against the bathtub, bludgeoned and stabbed to death. She’d been hit over the head with the lid from the toilet tank, which was shattered in pieces on the floor of the small bathroom and studio apartment. Investigators did not find a knife that they could say definitively was the murder weapon.
Washington told investigators that he had seen the door of that apartment sitting open the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. He said he tried to call inside but no one answered, and he wandered in. There, he said, he saw Altamirano Mosso’s body slumped against the side of the bathtub.
He said he panicked and ran out, and he didn’t tell anyone until weeks later because he was afraid he’d be blamed for her death.
Washington was arrested in January 2015 and formally charged that March, once he was extradited back to Kansas from his hometown.
A long legal battle ensued, complicated by changes in representation — Washington retained a defense attorney for about nine months early on in the case, but then was appointed the defense team of Adam Hall and Angela Keck. They got on the case in early 2016 and remained through April 2021, when the Midwest Innocence Project took his case.
Here’s a very brief timeline of some key points in the long, complicated case:
Key evidence at the trial
The trial finally began almost five years after the murder, and witnesses struggled to remember many of the details they had shared with law enforcement at the time. Evidence in Washington’s jury trial took about three weeks to present. And numerous members of the public began to question the case as more evidence emerged.
Washington left a footwear impression in Altamirano Mosso’s blood outside the bathroom, and the slide sandals that investigators later found at his apartment showed traces of her blood on the bottoms. Investigators also found a partial fingerprint consistent with one of Washington’s on the toilet tank lid, but Washington told investigators — and Cantu Ruiz testified — that Washington had been in the apartment before and had been in the bathroom. Cantu Ruiz’s prints, too, were found on the toilet tank lid, but as the prosecutor emphasized in her closing arguments, “It’s his bathroom.”
But Cantu Ruiz was the defense team’s alternative suspect in the case. He testified about the declining state of his marriage with Altamirano Mosso. Lawrence police had arrested him on suspicion of domestic violence against her about eight months before her death, though he was not charged. He knew Altamirano Mosso had a boyfriend. Cantu Ruiz testified that he thought she might be pregnant, and if she was, he didn’t know if he or someone else was the father. (The coroner testified that she was not pregnant.) And despite Cantu Ruiz’s plan to move to Manhattan, he left a lot of clothes and possessions behind in the apartment when he left.
Jurors also heard numerous text and Facebook messages Cantu Ruiz had sent Altamirano Mosso, calling her a whore and the worst trash he’d ever met, among other things — and a message he had sent to another woman just hours before Altamirano Mosso was last seen alive: “Estoy viudo,” which translates to “I am a widower.”
The coroner said Altamirano Mosso had attempted to defend herself from her attacker. Her right hand had numerous stab wounds; her left hand had fewer injuries, but her ring finger was severely damaged.
Swabs taken from one of Altamirano Mosso’s fingernail clippings revealed a partial DNA “haplotype” that could not rule out Washington or any of his male relatives, and that could be found in approximately one in every 2,000 men. His defense team sought further DNA testing of the clippings, which could have pointed more conclusively to an individual, but it was unclear from court proceedings whether that testing was completed by the time the case was dismissed.
Altamirano Mosso was found with a great deal of her own hair in her hands, but she also had two short hairs in her left hand. FBI testing could not rule out Cantu Ruiz or any of his maternal relatives as the contributor of those hairs, but the prosecutor said the hairs could have come from the bathroom floor. None of Washington’s hair was found at the scene.
But investigators said cellphone data and a photo taken in the men’s room at a rest stop along Interstate 70 proved Cantu Ruiz was on his way to Manhattan at the time they believe Altamirano Mosso was killed. That timeline is based on the last activity on her cellphone — the coroner testified that “by anatomy you can’t” determine someone’s time of death.
After about three full days of deliberations, the jurors were hung on all counts. The judge declared a mistrial, and the road to retrial began soon after.
Years behind bars
In the meantime, Washington was in custody of the Douglas County jail for 5 years and 5 months.
Keck and Hall filed a motion to reduce Washington’s bond, and the judge heard arguments on that motion on July 1, 2020 — about nine months after Washington’s mistrial. It was early into the pandemic, and well before the courts had determined safe ways to hold jury trials amid COVID-19. Washington’s case and numerous others were stalled, and no one knew how long that would last.
The judge lowered Washington’s bond to $500,000 from $750,000 cash or surety on July 1, 2020.
His family and the community raised the $50,000 needed to bond him out of jail the same day.
Washington remained on electronic monitoring via a GPS ankle monitor until the second anniversary of the mistrial — Oct. 4, 2021. Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria ruled that Washington would no longer have to wear the monitor, despite the seriousness of his charges, because he’d followed all court directives since his release from the jail.
In March 2021, a conflict arose that was never fully explained in public court, and Keck and Hall moved to withdraw from the case. A team of Midwest Innocence Project attorneys agreed to take on Washington’s case from there.
The case was set to go to a retrial, which would have begun in July.
But Douglas County DA Valdez — elected in November 2020 and sworn in Jan. 11, 2021 — dismissed the long-pending case on Dec. 22, 2021. The first six years of the case were prosecuted under the previous, four-term incumbent DA, Charles Branson, and Valdez had been in office about 11 months when she dismissed the case.
In a public statement about the dismissal, Valdez wrote that “Regardless of anything I say or do at this point, the opportunity for swift justice came and went before I ever set foot in this Office.”
“… Upon extensive review of this case, as well as a meticulous assessment of potential outcomes and adverse impacts of proceeding with the retrial, it is with a heavy heart that I have elected to cease prosecution in this matter at this time,” Valdez wrote. “This is by no means an indictment of the many fine law enforcement officers, specifically of the Lawrence Police Department, who spent countless hours investigating this matter to exhaustion and who worked tirelessly to seek justice for Ms. Mosso.”
Wrongful incarceration claim
Michel is also representing Albert Wilson in a wrongful conviction case against the state in Douglas County District Court. In wrongful conviction cases, the defendant-turned-plaintiff must prove they did not commit the crime for which they were convicted.
The circumstances here are a little different. Michel said he does not believe he has to prove Washington did not commit the crimes with which he was charged, “because he was never convicted of anything to begin with.
“The whole point would be that he never had that determination made in a timely manner, and was held without that determination for five and a half years, which to us was contrary to any notion of fairness or due process,” Michel said. “That’s why you have a speedy trial statute, and the Constitution requires a speedy trial. And so I don’t believe that we’d be required to prove his innocence in order to show his due process rights were violated.”
Michel also wrote in the notice of claim that he sent to the county that “It is our understanding that the case was ultimately dismissed because the District Attorney felt that Rontarus was not the correct suspect, i.e., he did not commit the crimes for which he was charged.”
Valdez on Friday referred back to her statement.
“As articulated in the December 22, 2021 statement on this matter, this office ceased prosecution due to the detrimental impact a retrial would have on the witnesses and the community; not because the State believed there was an alternative perpetrator,” she said via email. “Furthermore, the State dismissed this case without prejudice, meaning that the matter could be refiled and prosecution reinitiated. Under K.S.A. 21-5107(a), ‘A prosecution for rape, aggravated criminal sodomy, murder, terrorism or illegal use of weapons of mass destruction may be commenced at any time.’”
Attorney Michael K. Seck responded to Michel on behalf of Douglas County. Seck is with Fisher, Patterson, Sayler & Smith LLP, the Topeka-based firm where former DA Branson is now a partner.
Seck’s response said the county has 120 days — until late November — to investigate the claim.
After that point, Michel said there are a number of ways it could go, assuming the county does not agree to the $3 million claim: The county could completely deny the claim, in which case he believes Washington would want to move forward with filing a formal civil case against the county. If the county is willing, the two sides could enter into informal negotiations, or they could agree to work out a resolution with a mediator involved.
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