Opening statements in Rios' retrial suggest DNA is most important evidence

Tuesday, December 2, 2008 | 1:58 p.m. CST; updated 11:12 a.m. CST, Thursday, December 4, 2008
Former Columbia police Officer Steven Rios, right, confers with his attorney, Gillis Leonard, on Tuesday as the prosecution gives opening statements during Rios' murder trial. Rios is accused in the death of MU student Jesse Valencia.

This story was corrected to reflect that a retrial was granted in 2007 by a three-judge panel of the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals, not the Missouri Supreme Court.

COLUMBIA — In opening statements Tuesday, attorneys on both sides argued the merits of DNA results and timeline testimony, which they say will be the most important evidence in the murder retrial of former Columbia police officer Steven Rios.

Rios, 31, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2005 for the murder of Jesse Valencia, a 23-year-old MU student. Valencia was found dead with his throat slashed on June 5, 2004, just a few blocks from his East Campus apartment.

Rios’s new trial is being held in Boone County Circuit Court in front of a jury drawn from Clay County. He was granted a retrial in 2007 by a three-judge panel of the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals. The judges ruled that two statements made during testimony in the first trial were hearsay and, therefore, inadmissible.

Special prosecutor Morley Swingle began his opening statement by saying that Rios had a “secret sexual relationship” with Valencia, and committed the murder out of “lust and blind ambition.” Rios admitted to the affair to Columbia police before the start of the first trial. He met Valencia in April 2004 after issuing him a ticket at a party.

“He used his badge to start the affair and his knife to end it,” Swingle continued.

Swingle then told the jury that the state will use DNA evidence found in hair and fingernail clippings taken from Valencia’s body to prove Rios’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. “It is proven by science,” he said.

In its opening statement, the defense team, led by Moberly attorney Gillis Leonard, said the state has no irrefutable evidence against Rios. “Mr. Swingle is a gifted storyteller, and he just weaved a story for you,” Leonard said.

The defense will rely on a timeline of events on the day of the alleged murder to persuade the jury that Rios never had the opportunity to commit the crime. Between 3 and 4:30 a.m., when the murder allegedly occurred, Rios had the “best alibi in the world,” Leonard said. “He was knocking back some cold ones” with fellow officers in on the roof of the Columbia police station.

Leonard said several other officers will testify to that fact, and added that at 4:37 a.m., Rios used his department-issued identification card to enter a restroom at the station.

Several Rios family members were in the courtroom Tuesday morning, as well as Linda Valencia, the mother of Jesse Valencia. She left the courtroom in tears several times.

The state is scheduled to continue to call witnesses Tuesday afternoon.

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John Lloyd Scharf December 2, 2008 | 8:15 p.m.

Beyond a reasonable doubt is when you would be willing to be punished in the same way as thedefendent should you be wrong and the defendent be exonerated.

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