COLUMBIA — When the guilty verdict was read Friday night in the murder retrial of Steven Rios, Linda Valencia, the victim’s mother, bowed her head and cried quietly to herself.
It’s been a long, hard road for Valencia since the death of her son, Jesse Valencia, in June 2004, his throat slashed.
First, there was the initial shock of the death, followed by the challenges of the first trial, in which Rios, a former Columbia police officer, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But perhaps the hardest part was learning in 2007 that Rios’ conviction was overturned and that he would get a new trial.
“I pretty much fell apart,” she said at the time. Valencia has dealt with health problems and nightmares ever since.
But after Friday’s decision, in which Rios, now 31, was given a recommended sentence of life in prison for second-degree murder and armed criminal action, Valencia said she feels both relief and closure.
“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.
Valencia attended every day of the marathon four-day trial, in which testimony lasted more than 12 hours each day. She cried throughout much of the trial and had to leave the courtroom on a number of occasions.
During the trial’s sentencing phase on Friday afternoon, she took the stand and told the jury 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.”
The son she remembers was a “loving, compassionate, unique human being” whom she affectionately called “messy Jesse.”
Retired Boone County Circuit Judge Frank Conley 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.
In the meantime, Valencia said she plans to return to her home in Kentucky, where her son 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.”