COLUMBIA — Former Columbia Police Officer Steven Rios was sentenced to life in prison Friday for the second time in the 2004 murder of Jesse Valencia, an MU student with whom he was having an affair.
Rios, 31, could serve 30 years for second-degree murder plus 23 more — Valencia’s age at the time of his death — for armed criminal action. Retired Boone County Circuit Judge Frank Conley, who accepted the jury’s sentencing recommendations in his decision, said the sentences would run consecutively.
Rios was convicted of Valencia’s murder for the first time in 2005, but that decision was overturned. He was granted a retrial in 2007 by a three-judge panel of the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals. The appeals court ruled that statements made during testimony in the first trial were hearsay and inadmissible.
Under Missouri law, Rios must serve at least 85 percent of the sentence for second-degree murder, which could translate into 25 and a half years, plus time for armed criminal action. It’s a lighter sentence than he received in his first trial, when he was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 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, Special Prosecutor Morley Swingle said after the trial.
Valencia’s body was found on June 5, 2004, in a yard only a few blocks from his East Campus apartment. Throughout the December retrial, the state 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.
After the sentence was read on Friday afternoon at the Boone County Courthouse, Linda Valencia, the victim’s mother, said she was “glad that it turned out like it did” and that Conley had decided to run the sentences consecutively.
Earlier in the day, she spoke to the court about the effect of her son’s death on her and her family. She said she has faced a number of health problems in the past few years, and her daughter dropped out of high school and then had to get her GED.
She addressed several remarks directly to Rios, who was sitting only about 10 feet away, wearing a Boone County Jail uniform. She had to be reminded by Swingle to direct her comments to the court.
“For four and a half years we have had to deal with this,” she said. “I want this to be over.”
But the defense disagrees. Motions by Gillis Leonard, Rios’ attorney, for a judgment for acquittal and a new trial were overturned on Friday, but he said he would file a notice of appeal with the court shortly. It will then be up to the public defender’s office to find Rios an appellate attorney to represent him during the next appeals process.
“I will help in any way I can,” Leonard said.
Leonard said there were several problems with the retrial that an appeals court would have to consider. He cited the rapid pace at which jury selection and the trial were conducted and the question of whether two jurors talked about the trial away from other jurors. Leonard argued that both issues infringed on Rios’ right to a fair trial.
As much as Linda Valencia would like the case to finally be over, she said she understands that there could be another appeal, and she intends to be present to demonstrate her opposition.
“I’ll be here until the day I die,” she said. “I’ll come back and make sure that justice is done for Jesse.”