Rios to get new judge for trial

Tuesday, September 28, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:49 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The murder trial of former Columbia police officer Steven Rios has been reassigned to Circuit Judge Ellen Roper, who replaces Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton.

Rios, 27, is charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action in connection with the death of 23-year-old MU student Jesse Valencia, who was found with his throat cut June 5.

Rios’ defense attorneys filed a motion requesting the change Sept. 21. Missouri rules of criminal procedure do not require such motions to explain the request for a change in judges.

Valerie Leftwich, one of two public defenders representing Rios, said they made the request for “strategy purposes,” but she declined to discuss how the change might benefit the defense.

“What I can tell you is that everyone is entitled to a change of judge,” she said.

A message left with the office of special prosecutor Morley Swingle was not returned Monday afternoon.

The rules of procedure state that a judge presented with such a motion “promptly shall sustain the application,” meaning that the motion is granted automatically.

In addition to presiding over the trial of Rios, which has been scheduled for December, Roper will decide on a motion previously filed by the defense that requested a change of venue for the trial.

The Rios case is not the only high-profile trial to which Roper has been assigned. She is also presiding over the trial of Ryan Ferguson, 19, who is facing a first-degree murder charge in the death of Columbia Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.

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