Jury deliberations start in Rios murder retrial

Friday, December 5, 2008 | 1:26 p.m. CST; updated 1:56 p.m. CST, Friday, December 5, 2008
Special prosecutor Morley Swingle demonstrates how he says Steven Rios grabbed Jesse Valencia, which left Rios' arm hairs on Valencia's chest when he was murdered.

COLUMBIA—The fate of Steven Rios, a former Columbia police officer, is now in the hands of a Clay County jury, which at noon Friday started deliberations in Rios’ murder retrial.

In his closing argument, special prosecutor Morley Swingle reiterated the state’s contention that early on the morning of June 5, 2004, Rios attacked Jesse Valencia, put him into a chokehold and then slit his throat when he was lying on the ground unconscious. Valencia’s body was found later that afternoon only a few blocks from his East Campus apartment.

This is the second time that Rios, now 31, has faced life in prison with no possibility of parole for the murder of  Valencia, a 23-year-old MU student with whom Rios was having an affair. Rios is charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action.

Rios was found guilty of the murder in 2005 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.

While acknowledging that much of the state’s evidence in the case is circumstantial, Swingle said the facts are “overwhelming” that Rios committed the murder.

“(Rios) almost succeeded in covering up this crime,” Swingle told the jury, but said he left behind a number of damning pieces of evidence, including DNA on hairs and fingernail clippings taken from Valencia’s body.

Swingle then said the defense’s case reminded him of a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “’This is a tale full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’”

For his part, defense attorney Gillis Leonard asked the jury to “put aside all the smoke and mirrors, supposition and guessing,” and decide the case on the evidence presented.

He said that not only does Rios have a strong alibi on the morning of the death but that there was also never any evidence found during police searches of Rios’ home, vehicle and police station locker. He emphasized that Rios himself had no signs of injuries or Valencia’s DNA on his body.

“My client didn’t beat this man or murder this man, he had sex with this man,” Leonard said. “There is no evidence of this crime at all. They have found evidence of sex.”

Jury deliberations in Rios’ first trial took almost nine hours. Check back with the Missourian for updates.

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John Todd December 5, 2008 | 6:02 p.m.

However this turns out keep Linda Valencia in your prayers. This has been very hard on her and her daughters. Jesse is buried a short distance from her front door on the family farm. Rios is guilty. And it will be a travesty if he walks. But please join with me and pray for Linda. She needs it more than anything. A mother should never have to go thru this.

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