Steven Rios seeks new trial for 2004 murder of MU student

Wednesday, March 16, 2011 | 7:39 p.m. CDT; updated 7:15 p.m. CDT, Saturday, April 9, 2011
Steven Rios is questioned by special prosecutor Morley Swingle on Wednesday during a hearing in Boone County Circuit Court in Columbia. Rios said that in his 2008 retrial for murder, he was denied effective legal assistance from his lawyer, Gillis Leonard of Moberly.

COLUMBIA — Steven Rios appeared in court Wednesday, seeking what would be his third trial for the 2004 murder of an MU student.

The former Columbia Police officer is asking for a new trial on the grounds that he was denied effective assistance of counsel by Moberly attorney Gillis Leonard in his 2008 murder trial.

Rios, who was born in 1977, was first convicted in 2005 for first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the death of 23-year-old MU student Jesse Valencia. He was sentenced to life without parole, but he was granted a new trial in 2008 after it was determined that two statements made during the first trial were hearsay.

He was convicted in his second trial of second-degree murder and armed criminal action, and sentenced to life in prison and 23 years to be served consecutively.

Rios admitted that he had an affair with Valencia but denies involvement in his slaying.

Rios’ attorney, public defender Cinda Eichler, filed a motion with five claims supporting the argument that Leonard’s previous counsel was ineffective.

The following are Eichler's claims about how Leonard failed to serve Rios. According to the motion, Leonard:

  • Did not ask two police officers who went to police academy with Rios if they learned the unilateral vascular neck restraint that a teacher at the academy at the time testified Rios would have learned. The medical examiner testified that Valencia's body had bruises consistent with this type of restraint.
  • Failed to call former Columbia Daily Tribune reporter Mike Wells to testify about discrepancies in the time Valencia's neighbor Christopher Ryan Kepner said he heard a disturbance from Valencia's apartment. Wells quoted Kepner as saying the noise came between 3:30 and 4 a.m. but on the stand, Kepner said it happened anywhere between 3 and 10 a.m. According to other testimony, Rios was socializing with other officers from around 3 to 4:45 a.m.
  • Did not ask former Columbia Police Capt. Stephen Monticelli — who is now deputy chief of the department — about statements Rios made to him over the phone when Rios claimed he was going to commit suicide. According to Monticelli's report, Rios asked him "to continue to work the case" after his death.
  • Called DNA forensic consultant Dean Stetler to testify as the defense's expert witness despite knowledge that Stetler's testimony would harm the defense's case.
  • Refused to allow Rios to testify despite Rios's request to do so.

Retired Boone County Circuit Judge Frank Conley, who heard the case Wednesday, will be given proposed judgments from Eichler and special prosecutor Morley Swingle.

Conley was appointed judge in the 2008 trial by the Missouri Supreme Court after Judge Gary Oxenhandler recused himself because he knew a witness personally. Swingle was brought in as special prosecutor because of the relationship the Boone County Prosecutor's Office had with Rios as a police officer.

Eichler said her proposal asks the judge to determine that trial counsel was ineffective based on the claims in the motion and evidence heard in court Wednesday and grant Rios a new trial.

Conley will review these proposals by April 12 and is expected to decide on a judgment sometime in April, Eichler said. Rios is serving his sentence in the South Dakota State Penitentiary, where he will return shortly, Eichler said.

Rios was denied an appeal in July when he claimed the trial court made mistakes, including allowing members of the jury to separate from the group and letting the medical examiner testify about Valencia's cause of death.

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Paul Allaire March 17, 2011 | 12:23 p.m.

Now there's a picture of somebody who would almost make me want to support the death penalty.

And a whole lot of other bad thoughts.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire March 17, 2011 | 12:40 p.m.

And only a few short years ago you may have had the privilege of having this man testify against you in court knowing that the prosecutor was going to at least pretend to believe every word that came out of his mouth and that the judge was going to rubber stamp whatever the prosecutor recommended.

(Report Comment)

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