Morley Swingle is a storyteller. And the law, he says, is all about being able to tell a story; to have 12 men and women on the edge of their seats, awaiting what the Cape Girardeau County prosecutor calls “The Perry Mason Moment.”
“I love trying cases,” Swingle said. “I wanted to be Perry Mason.”
Since graduating from MU’s School of Law in 1980, Swingle, 49, has had his share of moments worthy of the famous TV lawyer, who always seemed to have the jury in the palm of his hand.
Should former Columbia police officer Steven Rios be charged with killing Jesse Valencia, Swingle would have quite a story to tell. Police are investigating if Rios has any connection with the death of Valencia, whose body was found near his East Campus apartment June 5. His throat had been cut.
Swingle was appointed June 18 by Boone County Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton to decide whether charges should be filed against Rios, 27, who has admitted to investigators he had an intimate relationship with Valencia, a 23-year-old MU student.
Although police haven’t called Rios a “suspect,” detectives searched his home for a knife and the clothes he wore the night Valencia was killed.
No one has been arrested in connection with Valencia’s death. Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said the department is awaiting the results of forensics tests on evidence gathered in the investigation so far.
Swingle has tried more than 120 cases, first as an assistant prosecutor and, since 1987, as prosecuting attorney for Cape Girardeau County. He has been appointed special prosecutor in more than a dozen cases, including the trial of Bradley Lockenvitz, the former Osage County prosecutor who was convicted of forging court documents.
Art Margulis, a St. Louis attorney, said Swingle’s “integrity and his ability, his thoroughness and his competence” are why he is so often called in by other county prosecutors to take on special cases.
“He knows what he’s supposed to be doing,” Margulis said, “and (he) conducts himself as a gentleman.”
Swingle is respected for both his knowledge of the law — in particular, search and seizure law — and his ethics, said Don Wolff, who, during his 43-year career in St. Louis, has faced Swingle in court.
“He is a student and a teacher of the law,” Wolff said. “He knows the law; he follows the law.”
Swingle is also known for his fairness, which, Wolff said, is “all any of us seek — someone who won’t abuse his or her power.”
Swingle was born and raised in southeast Missouri. His father, a highway patrolman in Cape Girardeau, was his inspiration for becoming a prosecutor, he said.
“He was the Highway Patrol,” Swingle said. After his father died when Swingle was 9, the family moved to Crystal City where he would stay until he came to MU.
Swingle’s skills and reputation have earned him appointment to state-wide judiciary review boards and faculty posts at teaching conferences for judges, lawyers and the state highway patrol.
Swingle dreamed of being a novelist before he ever thought to become an attorney. His dream came true when a manuscript he’d been working on for 20 years, “The Gold of Cape Girardeau,” was published in 2002. The book, about a rookie attorney living in the Cape Girardeau area around the time of the Civil War, has sold more than 6,000 copies.
He is currently working on a historical fiction novel that will feature the camels imported by the U.S. government and shipped to Texas for the cavalry.
Swingle, who is also preparing for a murder trial in Poplar Bluff, was brought in at the request of Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, given Rios’ role as a police witness in past and pending cases filed by Crane’s office.
Rios has been in a state mental-health hospital in Fulton since June 10. Boehm, who earlier had asked the Missouri State Highway Patrol to help with the investigation, has said detectives won’t question him while he is hospitalized. Rios, who threatened suicide on two occasions after he was publicly linked to Valencia, resigned June 16 while in protective custody at the Fulton hospital.
Although Swingle said he believes Columbia police can carry out an impartial investigation, it is “a routine and commonplace thing” for special prosecutors to be appointed in cases involving police officers.
And like any other case he tries, Swingle said he will bring the same dedication and fervor to the job that he always brings. “As a prosecutor, you don’t send any bills,” he said.
Unlike most private practice attorneys, the last contact a prosecutor has with the client isn’t asking for money, he said. Instead, it’s often a meaningful moment with the family of the victim; and that, he said, makes it all worthwhile.