COLUMBIA — Members of the Columbia Police Department and criminal investigation specialists testified about DNA and forensic evidence for 13 hours Tuesday in the murder retrial of former Columbia police officer Steven Rios.
Rios, now 31, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2005 for the murder of 23-year-old MU student Jesse Valencia. Rios’s new trial is being held in Boone County Circuit Court in front of a jury drawn from Clay County. The retrial was granted in 2007 by a three-judge panel of the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals, which ruled that two statements made during testimony in the first trial were hearsay and, therefore, inadmissible.
Special prosecutor Morley Swingle said in his opening statement that Rios had a “secret sexual relationship” with Valencia and committed the murder out of “lust and blind ambition.” Rios admitted 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 said.
Valencia was found dead with his throat slashed on June 5, 2004, just a few blocks from his East Campus apartment. Hair and fingernail clippings taken from Valencia’s body that day contained Rios’s DNA, according to testimony from Kim Gorman, a DNA analyst.
However, on cross-examination Gorman acknowledged to defense attorney Gillis Leonard that the DNA evidence only shows that Rios had some form of contact with Valencia prior to his death. She could not say when or how the DNA got from Rios to Valencia.
Testimony from several of Valencia’s friends revealed an outgoing college student interested in possibly becoming a lawyer. His mother, Linda Valencia, attended the first day of the trial, though she left the courtroom in tears a number of times. Several Rios family members were also in attendance.
On the early morning of the murder, the prosecution argued Tuesday, Rios attacked Valencia, put him into a chokehold and then slit his throat when he was lying on the ground unconscious. Swingle called a number of witnesses to testify in support of this sequence of events.
Dr. Valerie Rao, former Boone County medical examiner, testified that, based on patterns around Valencia’s neck wound, she thinks a serrated knife was used to make the cut. The wound was about 4 inches across and so deep that the knife struck Valencia’s spine. Although the murder weapon was never found, several officers testified that they had seen Rios with a serrated “clip knife” in his pants while on duty.
But on cross-examination, former officer Sean Moore admitted that he did not notify the Police Department about seeing Rios with the clip knife until after a memo was sent out to all officers in November 2004 asking if anyone had information relating to Rios and knives. Other officers said they could not be sure that they did in fact witness Rios with a clip knife.
Rao also testified that injuries she found on Valencia’s body during the autopsy, including bruises on his chest and back and popped blood vessels in his eyes, could have been caused by a chokehold technique Rios learned in a 1997 police training. Todd Burke, a law enforcement trainer, testified that he taught Rios the “unilateral vascular neck restraint” technique in that training and said the chokehold could render someone unconscious in 3 to 7 seconds.
Burke then demonstrated the hold on Swingle, wrapping his arms around his neck and taking him to the ground. During his cross-examination, Leonard dismissively referred to the technique as the “super secret ninja hold,” eliciting a few smiles from the jury. Leonard argued that while the chokehold could have led to the bruises Rao found, there are also a number of other explanations for the injuries. Rao admitted that “there are other possibilities” for what caused the injuries.
The defense’s case will likely hinge on a timeline of events on the day of the alleged murder that it says proves Rios never had the opportunity to commit the crime. Between 3 and 4:30 a.m., when Valencia is thought to have been killed, Rios had the “best alibi in the world,” Leonard said. “He was knocking back some cold ones” with fellow officers on the rooftop parking lot of the Columbia police station.
Leonard said several other officers will testify to that fact, and he added that at 4:37 a.m., Rios used his department-issued identification card to enter a restroom at the station.
The trial is scheduled to continue at 8:15 a.m. Wednesday in the Boone County Courthouse. Leonard said he expects the trial to last until Friday or Saturday.