COLUMBIA — A motion hearing and pre-trial conference in the retrial of Steven Rios was delayed indefinitely Thursday morning after Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler recused himself from the case.
Rios is a former Columbia Police officer who was convicted of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in 2005 in the June 5, 2004, slaying of 23-year-old Jesse Valencia, an MU student with whom Rios admitted he’d had an affair.
A docket entry posted Thursday morning on Missouri Case.net indicated that Oxenhandler recused himself “after due consideration of the anticipated witnesses and the recently filed pre-trial motions, to avoid even an appearance of impropriety.”
Special prosecutor Morley Swingle said that Oxenhandler recused himself because he knows a witness in the case.
Gillis C. Leonard, the Moberly attorney who became Rios’ attorney in February, said that in light of recent filings that have been made in the case, he feels the judge did the right thing.
“Judge Oxenhandler did what a good judge does,” Leonard said.
“There are times when judges believe their involvement could be an impediment to either side,” Leonard said. “He protected the integrity of both sides.”
Swingle said it was his understanding that Boone County Circuit Judge Jodie Asel will be assigned to the retrial. Asel will have to decide whether she has any potential conflicts and if she wants to take the case. Should she decide to recuse herself, the Missouri Supreme Court would then be asked to appoint someone.
“We’re sort of in limbo right now,” Swingle said. “Hopefully, we’ll find out in the next week or so.”
If the assignment is not made soon, the jury trial scheduled to begin Aug. 18 will have to be postponed.
Leonard confirmed that both he and Swingle were ready to go today.
“Both lawyers had their guns loaded and cocked today,” Leonard said.
Both said they are hoping to keep the Aug. 18 trial date if at all possible.
On July 5, 2005, Rios was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole on the murder charge and an additional 10 years in prison for armed criminal action, to be served consecutively.
On April 27, 2007, a three-judge panel of the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals overturned the original conviction and granted a retrial, ruling that Rios was denied a fair trial because of the admission of two hearsay statements. On Nov. 17, 2007, Rios was transported from the Minnesota Correctional Facility — Stillwater in Bayport, Minn., back to the Boone County Jail to await his retrial.