TOPEKA — The new Douglas County district attorney is under fire by local activists who say she campaigned on the pain of a man who spent five years in jail awaiting trial for a murder he did not commit.
Rontarus Washington Jr., 24, has been in custody since January 2015. He is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated burglary connected to the Nov. 14 death of his neighbor, 19-year-old Justina Altamirano Mosso.
Natasha Neal, a Lawrence activist, said Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez has not acted promptly to deliver justice on the accusation of murder against Washington, as she said she would during her campaign last year. Valdez argued given restraints imposed by COVID-19, her office is working at a just pace.
“Your first day in office, before you started unloading your stuff, you should have pulled out his file,” Neal said. “You used him in your campaign, and you haven’t done anything about it. We just want justice.”
Washington’s attorneys assert his innocence in the ongoing murder case. A first trial in 2019 ended with a hung jury. A second murder trial is scheduled to begin in September, but for now, efforts are underway to dismiss the case for prosecutorial misconduct.
In the six years since Alamirano Mosso was found stabbed to death in a Lawrence apartment, police and prosecutors have asserted that evidence points to Washington as the killer. At the time, Washington was 18 and lived at the opposite end of the same apartment hallway.
Mosso shared the apartment with her husband, Felipe Cantu Ruiz. Three weeks before her murder, she moved out to live with her nearby cousin. Cantu Ruiz testified that his wife was having an affair and that the marriage was unhappy.
This led the defense to point to Cantu Ruiz as an alternate suspect in the investigation. Angel Keck and Adam Hall, Washington’s attorneys, have cited incidents of domestic violence, his testimony and a Facebook message he sent to another woman hours before his wife’s death that said “I am widowed” as reasons for the suspicion.
After jury couldn’t reach a decision in Washington’s 2019 trial, CJ Rieg, the former assistant Douglas County D.A., moved to retry the case. Rieg accepted a position as assistant Attorney General of Kansas and has withdrawn from the case.
Washington is currently out on bond and living with his family after his bail was reduced from $750,000 to $500,000 on July 1, 2020. In a matter of hours, community fundraising efforts raised the money needed to pay for his release.
However, COVID-19 has brought the court system, specifically jury trials, to a halt. In response, allowances have been made to suspend the statutory right to a speedy trial in Kansas.
Current law dictates a case in Kansas must be brought to trial within 150 days, or 180 days if the defendant is not under supervision. When jury trials resume in Kansas, the clock will start, and courts across the state will face a serious backlog of cases accumulated throughout the pandemic.
These concerns have lead district attorneys from several counties to ask the state Legislature to delay the statutory assurance of a speedy trial for three years.
This, along with “delays attributable to many factors,” have pushed Washington’s jury trial to September, if COVID-19 restrictions are dropped, said Valdez.
Last summer, Valdez, then a candidate for the Douglas County district attorney, noted the case and the failure of then-D.A. Charles Branson to deliver justice for the victim or defendant. In a post on her campaign Facebook page, she said, “As DA, I will ensure that victims/survivors receive justice. Enough is enough!”
When Valdez won her election, Neal said, Valdez went silent on the issue. Valdez, facing consistent pressure from several activists, even blocked her on Facebook, Neal said.
Last week, Valdez clarified her stance on the case on the case. She acknowledged that throughout her campaign she pledged to seek justice for victims and survivors but said her statements regarding the case were based on her belief that Washington did not receive “swift procedural justice” when Branson was the district attorney.
“I could not, nor have I ever, commented on the merits of the State v. Washington case. Importantly, I have never promised to dismiss the case against Mr. Washington,” Valdez said. “To the extent the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office can ensure swift justice for Mr. Washington, we are committed to doing so and have done so.”
Valdez said the case has gone before district court on several motions since she took office Jan. 11.
Neal remained critical of the approach Valdez has taken to this case and her response to their concerns.
If Valdez cannot take immediate action, Neal hopes legal efforts to dismiss the case will be successful. Washington’s attorneys delivered closing arguments Friday on why the case should be dismissed. District Court Chief Judge James McCabria must now decide if the trial will proceed.
Neal and fellow community organizer Trinity Carpenter said the time Washington spent behind bars had a “profound impact” on his mental health. They said even the word “trial” elicits strong and painful emotions for him.
“This should be no one’s reality,” Carpenter said.