Lawyers defending murder suspect Steven Rios could request a change of venue for the trial of the former Columbia police officer at his arraignment Tuesday.
Rios waived his right to a preliminary hearing at a court appearance on Aug. 20, moving the process directly to the arraignment. At a brief press conference after Rios’ appearance, special prosecuting attorney Morley Swingle said public defender Valerie Leftwich had told him she was considering a venue change.
Swingle and Leftwich could not be reached at their offices Friday.
Even if Rios’ defense lawyers do not ask for a venue change at the arraignment, Missouri law gives them 10 days to file a formal request. Jarrett Johnson, chairman of the Missouri Bar Association’s Criminal Law Committee, said that if Rios’ lawyers file a request, they are likely to argue that extensive media coverage of Rios has biased people who live in Columbia.
Within days of the death of 23-year-old Jesse Valencia on June 5, the media focused attention on Rios.
On June 10, it was reported that the Columbia Police Department had put Rios on paid leave because of his connection to Valencia. Rios later said the two had a homosexual relationship.
That same day, Rios, a married father of one, threatened to kill himself with a shotgun while on the phone with Columbia police. Authorities placed him in protective custody, but he escaped June 11 and fled to the top of the Maryland Avenue parking garage, where he threatened to jump. Police persuaded Rios to come down, and since that incident he has been held at the Biggs Forensic Center in Fulton State Hospital.
After the suicide threats, dozens of stories about Rios ran in Columbia newspapers and television news broadcasts.
Johnson said the defense has a strong argument for a change of venue because of the quantity of media coverage. But he said venue changes are not always beneficial to the defense because juries are difficult to predict.
“The defense lawyers often regret that they got what they asked for,” he said.
In Johnson’s opinion, juries from more populous and diverse communities are less harsh than those from less-populated rural areas. But he said sometimes the facts of the case make those issues irrelevant.
Dan Viets, a criminal defense lawyer from Columbia, disagrees. He said he has not seen any hard evidence that rural juries are noticeably different from urban ones.
Viets also said he was unsure whether Rios’ homosexual relationship with Valencia would affect a rural jury’s decision. Last month, voters passed an amendment to the Missouri Constitution banning gay marriage by a ratio of about 2 to 1; but only about 54 percent of Boone County voters approved the measure.
“We know that the jurors probably would not want to see Steve married to another homosexual person,” Viets said. “But it’s hard to say whether the relationship would affect their decision.”
If the judge grants a venue change, the trial will not necessarily move to another county. The judge and attorneys could travel to another community, select jurors there and bring them back to Boone County for the trial. This happened in the case against murder suspect Ryan Ferguson, who is facing charges in the 2001 death of Kent Heitholt, a sports editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune. Jurors in his trial, which is scheduled for January, will come from Lincoln County.
At the arraignment, Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton will read formal charges against Rios, who will then enter his plea. If he pleads not guilty, Hamilton will consider dates for the trial. He will set the trial date at the hearing or within the next few days.
Rios is also a co-defendant in a personal-injury lawsuit involving a 6-year-old boy. Rios is accused of causing a car accident that left the boy unable to run. The Columbia Police Department is the other co-defendant.