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Judge tentatively dismisses Rontarus Washington Jr.’s wrongful incarceration case

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Washington has 120 days to file an amended complaint

A federal judge has granted motions to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a man who was in custody of the Douglas County jail for more than five years while his case was still pending.

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Rontarus Washington Jr., now 27, was charged in the murder of a woman who lived down the hall from his Lawrence apartment on Nov. 7, 2014. The defense presented evidence that an alternative suspect may have been responsible for the murder, and 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, and the current Douglas County district attorney, Suzanne Valdez, ultimately dismissed the case on Dec. 22, 2021, almost a year after she took office.

The lawsuit, filed in February, alleged 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 stated that Washington’s situation created a claim analogous to malicious prosecution.

Over the course of the nearly seven years that the criminal 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.)

Larry Michel, Washington’s attorney, previously said that “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.”

The lawsuit alleged 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.”

The lawsuit was filed against Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister, two former sheriffs who had served in office while Washington was in jail, former Douglas County district attorney Charles Branson and Douglas County itself. It sought more than $75,000 in damages, as well as reasonable attorney fees, and any other relief the court deemed fair and equitable.

U.S. District Judge John W. Broomes wrote in an order Friday that Branson, in his official capacity, was immune from Washington’s claim for damages.

Broomes also wrote that because Washington’s initial notice of claim blamed the DA’s office for his prolonged detention, and it gave no indication that any sheriff was responsible; therefore, the lawsuit failed to comply with state statutes regarding claims against individual sheriffs.

Another reason Broomes wrote that he was dismissing the case was that the lawsuit failed to meet a legal burden to prove that “(1) defendant caused plaintiff’s continued confinement or prosecution; (2) the original action terminated in favor of plaintiff; (3) no probable cause supported the arrest, confinement, or prosecution; (4) defendant acted maliciously; and (5) plaintiff sustained damages.”

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“(A)lthough Plaintiff alleges that collectively Defendants caused his confinement and the original prosecution ended in his favor, Plaintiff fails to allege that there was a lack of probable cause or that Defendants acted with malice,” Broomes wrote. “Further, Plaintiff’s allegations are entirely conclusory and fail to set forth specific facts showing that a defendant or any of them caused Plaintiff’s continued confinement or prosecution.”

Regarding the claims against the county, Broomes wrote that “The court finds that the amended complaint fails to state a claim under § 1983 for a violation of his substantive due process rights. As Plaintiff has failed to allege a violation by any individual Defendant, the county cannot be liable on this claim.”

Washington has 120 days to file an amended complaint, if he chooses to, but he “cannot assert a claim against Branson in his official capacity as it is barred on the basis of sovereign immunity,” Broomes wrote in his order. If Washington does not file an amended complaint or choose to refile the case in state court, the case will be dismissed without further notice, and without prejudice, Broomes wrote, meaning that the case could be filed again.

Michel declined to comment for this article or answer if he knows yet whether he plans to file an amended complaint.

The sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Friday afternoon, and Branson said he had not yet seen the opinion. This article will be updated if possible.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

More coverage: Rontarus Washington Jr. case

Judge tentatively dismisses Rontarus Washington Jr.’s wrongful incarceration case

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A federal judge has granted motions to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a man who was in custody of the Douglas County jail for more than five years while his case was still pending.

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