Rios asks for change of venue

Wednesday, September 22, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:58 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Lawyers for former Columbia police officer Steven Rios have filed a motion requesting a change of venue for his trial in the death of an MU student.

The motion argues that the extensive media coverage of the case could prevent Rios from receiving a fair trial by Boone County jurors.

Rios is charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the death of 23-year-old MU student Jesse Valencia, who was found with his throat cut on June 5.

The motion, which was filed Monday in the 13th Circuit Court, argues that “the amount and nature of pretrial publicity” surrounding the murder would prejudice jurors against Rios.

The motion was accompanied by about 200 pages of newspaper articles and summaries of television reports about the case. The Columbia Daily Tribune and the Columbia Missourian each have published more than 30 articles and commentaries about Valencia’s death.

In their motion, Valerie Leftwich and Stephen Richey, the public defenders representing Rios, said the media accounts included information that might not be allowed in the trial.

“The media coverage has been pervasive and includes reports of hearsay statements and seized evidence that may not be admissible,” the motion said.

Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton, who will preside over the trial, has not yet ruled on the motion. Hamilton could order that jurors be brought in from another county or move the trial to another judicial circuit.

Special prosecutor Morley Swingle said that he would agree with a decision to bring in jurors from elsewhere, but would oppose moving the trial. Swingle said that 73 of the 83 witnesses in the trial are from Boone County, and the state would have to pay for their travel and accommodations if trial was moved.

“It would be much more efficient in terms of time and expense to the witnesses and to the taxpayers to go ahead and try the case in Boone County, but to import the jurors from somewhere else,” Swingle said in a letter to Hamilton earlier this month.

Venue changes are not uncommon in Boone County. Ryan Ferguson, who is charged with the first-degree murder in the death of Columbia Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt, will be tried by a jury from Lincoln County. Mark Kempton, the attorney for co-defendant Chuck Erickson, said that he filed a similar motion for his client, but that request has yet to be decided.

Earlier this month, Hamilton set a trial date of Dec. 14 for Rios. However, Swingle said the date was liable to change because other trials are scheduled for that day. The request for change of venue, if granted, could also affect the trial’s start date, he said.

Swingle has informed Hamilton that he expects the trial to take about a week.

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