LIBERTY — While sitting at a conference table alongside his defense attorneys Monday, Stephen Rios saw for the first time the potential jurors who will determine his guilt or innocence.
Rios, a former Columbia police officer, is accused of killing Jesse Valencia, a 23-year-old MU student who was found dead near his Wilson Avenue apartment June 5, 2004, with his throat cut.
Rios, 28, has pleaded not guilty in Boone County Circuit Court to charges of first-degree murder and armed criminal action.
Seventy-five prospective jurors were questioned by prosecution and defense attorneys in the crowded courtroom. Attorneys selected 12 jurors and four alternates from those summoned. The process lasted from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Concerns about excessive media coverage in Boone County prompted defense attorneys to request a change of venue. Although the request was denied, Circuit Court Judge Ellen Roper agreed to allow a jury pool to be selected from residents of Clay County, which is northeast of Kansas City. The trial continues at 8:30 a.m. today at the Boone County Courthouse. The jurors will be sequestered during the trial.
Special Prosecutor Morley Swingle of Cape Girardeau said the jury consists of 13 women and three men. He said that most are about 40 years old and that there are no black jurors. Swingle said he does not think any of the jurors were Hispanic, but he was not certain.
Prospective jurors arrived in all manner of dress, some in polo shirts and khaki pants, others in flannel and jeans.
Roper asked some jurors whether they could remain fair and impartial after they heard newspaper and television accounts of the story. Others were asked whether they could alter vacation plans to witness the trial.
To pare down the number of prospective jurors, attorneys from both sides were allowed to ask questions of the jurors to determine whether they would remain impartial during the trial.
Swingle said some evidence would be explicit and troubling.
“You might hear some gruesome testimony, (see) some photos of the dead body,” Swingle said. “No one likes to look at that, but you will be asked to.”
According to court documents, 65 of 67 possible crime-scene and autopsy photographs will be allowed to be shown during the trial.
Swingle asked jurors whether the discussion of explicit sexual activity would affect their judgment.
“Please tell me if you disagree with this statement: Even a sexually promiscuous 23-year-old boy does not deserve to be murdered,” he said.
Leftwich asked jurors whether Rios’ involvement in a homosexual relationship would affect their view of him. She then asked whether their views would change if that relationship was an affair.
According to court documents, during an interview with police, Rios said he had a sexual relationship with Valencia.
Dressed in a charcoal-gray suit with a blue shirt and red tie, Rios, who resigned from the Columbia Police Department on June 16, 2004, briefly spoke with relatives during court recesses, blowing them kisses and mouthing the words “I love you.”
Leftwich asked prospective jurors whether they would be more willing to believe a police officer than other people, then asked whether experience would lead them to distrust those in law enforcement.
Leftwich also asked prospective jurors whether they knew anyone who had attempted or committed suicide, or if they themselves had attempted suicide.
According to police documents, on June 10, Rios called Columbia police to say he was in Kansas City with a 12-gauge shotgun and was prepared to harm himself.
Rios was apprehended and taken to the Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center on June 11. However, he escaped about 7 p.m. and the next day, he said he would jump from the top of the five-story Maryland Avenue parking garage at MU. He was persuaded to come down and taken to the Biggs Forensic Unit at Fulton State Hospital. While there, he resigned from the police force, and on July 1 he was charged with Valencia’s murder.
Swingle said he plans to present the testimony of about 60 witnesses, including those from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the medical examiner’s office, the Columbia Police Department and MU students.
Swingle said he would call Christopher Kepner, one of Valencia’s neighbors, to the stand. According to court documents, Kepner heard an argument from Valencia’s apartment on the night of the murder.
The defense listed Dr. Dean Stetler, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Kansas, and Rios’s wife Libby as its two witnesses.
Swingle has said that he would not pursue the death penalty. The prosecution is seeking a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Roper said the trial would last about a week.