Judge reserves rulings in motion hearing for Rios retrial

Jury trial slated to start Aug. 18
Tuesday, July 22, 2008 | 8:09 p.m. CDT; updated 8:25 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Former Boone County Circuit Judge Frank Conley ruled that Steven Rios will be allowed to appear in clothing of his choice but will have to wear a leg brace that restricts his motion when he is retried on first-degree murder and armed criminal action charges. The jury trial is still scheduled to begin Aug. 18.

Conley— who was assigned to the case by the Missouri Supreme Court — chose not to rule on the remaining motions discussed at a pretrial conference and motion hearing held Tuesday afternoon.

Rios, a former Columbia police officer, was convicted of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in July 2005 in the June 5, 2004, slaying of 23-year-old Jesse Valencia, an MU student with whom Rios admitted he had an affair. Valencia was found roughly five blocks away from his East Campus apartment with his throat slashed.


On May 19, Rios and his new attorney, Gillis Leonard, filed motions to keep certain evidence out of the retrial: a Spyderco knife bought by the Columbia Police Department, photographs and alleged hearsay statements of the victim. The knife was presented as an example of a knife that some officers testified they saw Rios possessing in early 2004 but was not the actual murder weapon — which was never recovered.


All parties agreed to deal with the issue of the knife, as well as the photographs and the alleged hearsay statements, when the time comes during the trial.


The defense also filed motions to allow the jury to visit the crime scene and to suppress some possibly mishandled hairs entered as DNA evidence. Whether the jury will be asked to visit the crime scene remains to be determined.


The possibly mishandled hairs were discussed at length. Special Prosecutor Morley Swingle called five witnesses in an effort to provide “reasonable assurance that the evidence was not tampered with.”


Columbia Police Detective Jeff Nichols repeatedly confirmed what he had written in his original report: that he found a single hair that he believed had blood on it on or around the wound on Valencia’s neck. A sealed box containing this hair and other pieces of what is known as trace evidence was placed into the evidence room at the Columbia Police Department on June 9, 2004. The term “trace evidence” can describe a variety of tiny particles including hairs, fibers or fingerprints that are found at a crime scene.


Later that day, the box was placed into a sealed plastic bag and delivered to the Missouri State Highway Patrol so that the contents could be tested. The box returned to the evidence unit, unopened, on June 30.


It was then resubmitted for testing on Dec. 12, 2004. Criminalist John Randle examined the contents, and testified in the original trial that he found no hairs with blood on them. Although three other hairs, not mentioned specifically in Nichols’ report, did match samples from Rios and were passed along for further analysis. Randle also testified that he came to wonder whether the box was completely sealed when he first received it, as he had originally believed.


In his rebuttal, Leonard maintained that this evidence was tampered with at some point, given how adamant Nichols had been about the single bloody hair he found and the unlikelihood that somebody as experienced as Randle would overlook or compromise such a piece of evidence.


Conley’s decision on whether this evidence will be suppressed could come at any time before the trial, or even during it.


Both of the lawyers and the judge agreed to set aside time on the afternoon of Aug. 6 should the need arise for all three to meet again before the trial.


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. He was transported to the Minnesota prison for his own protection in February 2006.


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