COLUMBIA — A Moberly attorney who describes himself as a “bulldog” and a “good ol’ country boy lawyer” will defend former Columbia police officer Steven Rios pro bono when Rios is retried sometime in mid-July or August.
At Rios’ counsel status hearing Tuesday in front of Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler, Rios was visibly upbeat as he stood beside his new attorney, Gillis C. Leonard.
Leonard, 50, moved toward the jury box where Rios was sitting before the status hearing and patted him on the head, while whispering in his ear. Leonard’s co-counsel, Stone Grissom, is a former Columbia KMIZ/Channel 17 anchor who has appeared on truTV, according to an online resume. Grissom earned a law degree from the University of Notre Dame.
Rios is convicted of murdering Jesse Valencia, a 23-year-old MU student with whom he had an affair. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole for first-degree murder, plus an additional 10 years for armed criminal action.
Valencia’s body was found at the corner of Wilson Avenue and Williams Street in June 2004, according to court documents, with his throat slashed .
In April 2007, the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals determined that the use of two hearsay statements, about a minute in length, used to establish Rios’ motive for allegedly killing Valencia were not admissible in court.
Though he did not attend Rios’ first trial in May 2005, Leonard said “anyone with a legal education knew that this would happen,” referring to the appeals court decision to grant Rios a new trial.
“This is a do-over,” Leonard said. “Any time you have a do-over ... any number of things can happen.”
Grissom was not present at Tuesday’s hearing.
Leonard said he filed paperwork to represent Rios about 10 days ago. Grissom’s credentials are due to Oxenhandler by Monday.
Leonard said Grissom urged him to take the case.
After his conviction, Rios was incarcerated at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater in Bayport, Minn.
There, he was segregated from the regular prison population until November when he was moved to Boone County Jail, where he is currently being held, to await a retrial. Rios is a former county jail guard.
Cape Girardeau special prosecutor Morley Swingle will again make the state’s case against Rios.
“There will be no new evidence or witnesses introduced in the case,” said Swingle after Tuesday’s hearing. “The facts are still the facts.” Swingle said Joan Sheridan, a witness whose hearsay statements became the basis for the appeals court decision, will still play an important role in the prosecution’s case. Sheridan testified that Valencia told her he was going to confront Rios and ask him if he was married. She also testified that Valencia told her that if Rios did not “take care of” a ticket that Rios wrote him the night the two met on April 18, 2004, Valencia would threaten to expose their affair to the Police Department.
No one from either Rios’ or Valencia’s family was in court for Tuesday’s hearing.
Geoffrey Preckshot, a Rios family spokesman and Columbia attorney, said Rios’ ex-wife, Libby Rios, has “moved on” from her former marriage to Steven Rios. According to Missouri Case.net, the marriage was dissolved in September 2006.
In November, Jesse Valencia’s mother, Linda Valencia, told the Missourian she had a message for Steven Rios:
“I want Steven Rios to know that he didn’t only kill my son,” she said. “He destroyed my life and my family’s life.”
Oxenhandler said he would have to check his schedule before setting a retrial date. The court trial is expected to last about a week, or five trial days.