Closing arguments begin Friday in Rios murder retrial

Thursday, December 4, 2008 | 10:58 p.m. CST; updated 12:10 a.m. CST, Friday, December 5, 2008
Columbia police Officer Tim Giger indicates the amount of time it took him to drive from the Columbia Police Department to Jesse Valencia's apartment. Defense attorney Gillis Leonard objected to the time chart, saying Giger had no way of knowing what route, if any, Rios took to Valencia's apartment.

COLUMBIA — The ex-wife of former Columbia police officer Steven Rios testified in his murder retrial Thursday about her experiences in the hours and days following the June 2004 death of Jesse Valencia.

Elizabeth Sullivan had been married to Rios for about 2 years and had a 4-and-a-half-month-old son with him when he returned to their home at 5:15 a.m. on June 5, 2004, a time she said she remembers well because her job as a store manager taught her to be meticulous about timekeeping.

“When he came in we said ‘Hi,’ and I said, ‘Long night?’ and he said, ‘Yeah,’” Sullivan testified. She said she didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary when he returned.

At one point in Sullivan’s testimony, as defense attorney Gillis Leonard asked why she was still willing to testify on behalf of Rios after all the ways he had wronged her, both she and Rios started to cry.

Rios, now 31, is charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the death of Valencia, a 23-year-old MU student with whom he has admitted he was having an affair. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2005 for the murder, but was granted a retrial in 2007 by a three-judge panel of the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals. The court ruled that two statements made during testimony in the first trial were hearsay and inadmissible.

Both the state and defense rested Thursday after more than 14 hours of testimony. Two of the central issues in the case — DNA evidence and the timeline of events on the day Valencia’s body was discovered — were discussed at length, with the state and defense calling a number of witnesses in support of their arguments.

For the defense, the strategy was to focus on Rios’ alibi on the morning of the alleged murder. Sullivan’s testimony was key to that defense, as it provided only a small window of time during which Rios was unaccounted for.

After Rios’ patrol shift ended at 3 a.m., he joined several other officers on the rooftop parking lot at the Columbia Police Department, where they drank a few beers together, the officers testified.

Former Sgt. Gerald Green and Lt. Scott Young, among others, agree that Rios didn’t leave the lot until about 4:45 or 4:50 a.m. and say they didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary about how Rios looked or acted. Also, Richard Jenkins, a system analyst for the Columbia Police Department, testified that Rios used his department-issued identification card at 4:37 a.m. to enter a door on the rooftop lot.

But special prosecutor Morley Swingle argued that Rios did have the time to commit the murder that morning. On his cross-examination of Sullivan, he pointed out that she testified in the first trial that Rios got home between 5:20 and 5:25 a.m. Sullivan said Thursday that the time was a mistake, but that she was encouraged by Rios’ former attorney not to change it.

"She told me, 'We don't want it to look like we're changing our story,'" Sullivan testified.

Officer Timothy Giger testified that he was twice assigned to drive the routes between the police station and Valencia’s apartment, and the apartment and Rios’ home, to see how long the trips would take. The drive to Valencia’s apartment took from 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 minutes, while the drive from the apartment to Rios’ house took between 7 and 10 minutes.

As for the forensic evidence, both sides agree that Rios’ DNA was found on hair and fingernail clippings taken from Valencia’s body. Three DNA experts have testified to that fact. Swingle argued that the DNA from the fingernail clippings proves that Rios must have come into contact with Valencia shortly before his death because according to testimony from several of Valencia’s friends, he was compulsive about nail care and would frequently buff and clean his nails.

Leonard argued that because there was so little DNA on the fingernails, and because it is scientifically impossible to tell how long DNA has been in contact with something, the fingernail evidence is inconclusive.

Dean Stetler, a DNA specialist called by the defense, testified that the usable DNA sample taken from under the fingernails on Valencia’s right hand was so limited that it would have come from an amount of body fluid 200 times smaller than the smallest particle visible to the naked eye. The sample also included DNA from Ed McDevitt, with whom Valencia had sex days before he died.

And the three hairs with Rios’ DNA found on Valencia’s body could have come from the comforter on Valencia’s bed, which was never tested by the Missouri State Highway Patrol Crime Lab, Leonard argued. Since Rios had sex with Valencia in his apartment, Leonard said, it is logical to think that some of Rios’ hairs would have been on Valencia’s bed and could easily have transferred to his body.

Earlier Thursday, Swingle argued that Rios behaved suspiciously on the day of Valencia’s death. Jenkins, the system analyst, testified that at 3:20 p.m. on June 5, 2004, Rios used his department identification number to access police dispatch records on a computer at a police substation in north Columbia. At that time the records would have shown that there was an active “death investigation” into a “body in yard with large wound on neck,” Jenkins said.

A computer at the same substation was accessed earlier that day, at about 10:30 a.m., using a generic personnel number. The only information that could have been viewed using that number were the dispatch records, Jenkins testified. Rios admitted to detectives in an interview a few days after Valencia’s death that he was at the substation at those times, though he said he was using the computer to write a memo.

Swingle argued that Rios went to the substation to monitor the investigation into Valencia’s death. Rios was off-duty when the computer was accessed, a fact Swingle called suspicious considering that many officers testified that they would never check dispatch records on their days off.

Officer Brad Anderson also testified about what he considered Rios’ strange behavior, saying that Rios would sometimes joke with him that Anderson was having sex with Valencia. For example, after hearing that Anderson had responded to a noise complaint in May 2004 at Valencia’s apartment, Rios said to him, “'I guess you were over at your boyfriend’s house,'” Anderson testified.

Then on the day after Valencia’s death, Anderson asked Rios if he had looked at the photos from the crime scene, to which Rios responded, “'I see that your gay lover’s dead,'” Anderson said.

Closing arguments are scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Friday in Boone County Circuit Court, after which the case will go to the Clay County jury for deliberation.

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