Post last updated at 5:58 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15:
A man who was in custody of the Douglas County jail for more than five years while his case was still pending has filed a federal lawsuit against the county and its top elected law enforcement officials.
Rontarus Washington Jr., now 26, was charged in the murder of a woman who lived down the hall from his Lawrence apartment on Nov. 7, 2014. A jury could not come to a verdict following a four-week trial in September 2019, and preparation for a retrial was complicated by COVID-19. The current Douglas County district attorney, Suzanne Valdez, ultimately dismissed the case on Dec. 22, 2021.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, alleges that Washington “was subjected to lawful but wrongful legal process,” and that the defendants “failed to fully and adequately investigate Rontarus’ case in a manner consistent with the search for truth.” It states that Washington’s situation creates a claim analogous to malicious prosecution.
Over the course of the nearly seven years that the case was ongoing, Washington was represented in some capacity by five defense teams or individual attorneys. There were multiple changes to the prosecution team during the case’s last year, as well. By 2021, the evidence in the case — which all of those attorneys had to review — constituted a terabyte of data.
His attorneys requested many delays as they sought further evidence, further DNA testing, expert witnesses, translations of messages and interviews with Spanish-speaking witnesses, mental health examinations and more. Washington had repeatedly waived his right to a speedy trial. (Read more and see a full timeline of the case at this link.)
“I’m sure the county is going to make a big point of the fact that the requests were made by his defense attorneys,” Larry Michel, Washington’s attorney for the civil case, said in September. “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,” he said.
Michel, of the Salina-based firm Kennedy Berkley, sent the county a notice of claim in July. The claim sought $3 million in damages for Washington’s “wrongful incarceration, lost wages, mental anguish, and for loss of society.” Michel said in September that he believed that if the county did not agree to the $3 million claim, Washington would want to move forward with filing a formal civil case.
The lawsuit alleges that Washington’s federal rights were violated when he was held in jail for more than five years “for a crime that he did not commit, and the charges against him were eventually dismissed. As a result, Rontarus was deprived of his rights and privileges secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
Washington’s bond was lowered to $500,000 cash or surety from $750,000 on July 1, 2020, and he was released from the jail the same day when a community crowdfunding campaign quickly raised the $50,000 needed to bond him out. He was monitored with an electronic ankle bracelet until the second anniversary of the mistrial — Oct. 4, 2021. The judge ruled that he would not have to keep the monitor on as he had followed all court directives since his release from the jail.
The lawsuit seeks more than $75,000 in damages, as well as reasonable attorney fees, and any other relief the court deems fair and equitable.
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