COLUMBIA—Former Columbia police Officer Steven Rios was found guilty of second-degree murder and armed criminal action on Friday. The jury recommended a sentence of life in prison for the June 2004 murder of Jesse Valencia.
When the verdict was read at about 6:30 p.m. Friday after more than six hours of deliberation, the victim’s mother, Linda Valencia, and several of his friends broke down in tears.
Rios looked shocked, but did not show any emotion until his father, Gilbert Rios, took the stand during the trial’s sentencing phase and talked about Rios’ relationship with his 4-year-old son. Rios, now 31, did not testify in the trial.
Just minutes after the sentence was read, a visibly relieved Linda Valencia said she was pleased with the jury’s decision. “Right now I feel pretty good,” she said. “I’m satisfied with the sentence he got.” She added that if Rios does ever come up for parole, she’ll be there to fight against it.
She told the jury during the trial’s sentencing phase earlier in the day that she had been very close to her son, a 23-year-old MU student, and talked to him every day on the phone.
“Jesse was not only my son, he was my best friend, my confidant,” she said, fighting back tears. “We talked about everything. We had no secrets. I miss him so much, so much.”
Friday’s decision comes just over a year after Rios was granted a retrial by a three-judge panel of the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals. Rios was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole in 2005, but the appeals court overturned the decision, ruling two statements made during testimony in the first trial were hearsay and inadmissible. That evidence was not admitted in the new trial.
Special prosecutor Morley Swingle asked the Clay County jury to sentence Rios to life in prison, so that “he will never walk the streets again.”
“This is a crime that is extremely important to send a message on,” Swingle said. “This was a man who used his position of power and authority to take the life of a 23-year-old man.”
Valencia’s body was found on June 5, 2004, only a few blocks from his East Campus apartment. Throughout the trial, the prosecution argued that early that morning, Rios attacked Valencia, put him into a chokehold and then slit his throat when he was lying on the ground unconscious. Rios, who was married with an infant son at the time of the murder, had been having an affair with Valencia.
Under Missouri law, the life sentence on a second-degree murder charge is 30 years, for which Rios must serve at least 85 percent. The jury of eight women and four men also recommended a sentence of 23 years for the armed criminal action charge. Rios will face at minimum 30 years on both charges, with credit for time served, Swingle said after the trial.
The jury’s decision to find Rios guilty on the lesser murder charge means it did not think he displayed “cool reflection” — the requirement for first-degree murder — in committing the crime, Swingle said. He said that he understood why the jury would think Rios did not deliberate before the murder and added that in its decision overturning the original trial, the appeals court actually predicted this outcome.
Retired Boone County Circuit Judge Frank Conley, who heard the case, will decide the final sentence for Rios on Jan. 16. He can either accept the jury’s recommendation or assign a reduced sentence, and he will also determine whether to run the sentences concurrently or consecutively.
Linda Valencia said she plans to return to her home in Kentucky, where Jesse Valencia is buried at the family’s farm.
She said, “I’m going to lay a white rose on his grave to symbolize once again that justice has been done for Jesse.”