The murder trial of Steven Rios began Tuesday with prosecutors showing photos of the dead body of 23-year-old Jesse Valencia and concluded with lingering questions about the lack of a weapon and the possible misuse of a police restraint technique.
In his opening statement at the Boone County Courthouse, special prosecutor Morley Swingle of Cape Girardeau portrayed Valencia as a fun-loving college student with aspirations of attending law school. He described Valencia’s last hours, as he went from party to party, and Swingle then gave a graphic account of Valencia’s death.
Rios, 28, dressed in a black suit, white shirt and blue tie, shook his head and frowned several times during Swingle’s opening statement.
A former Columbia police officer, Rios is charged in Boone County Circuit Court with first-degree murder and armed criminal action. Swingle said Monday that he is seeking a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Public defender Valerie Leftwich, who conceded that Rios had a sexual relationship with Valencia, constructed a different interpretation of Valencia, saying he had many sexual partners before his slaying on June 5, 2004. She added that Valencia did not have contact with Rios in the six days leading up to his death.
“(Valencia) had sexual contact with a lot of men,” Leftwich said.
“But this one, the evidence will show, did not kill him.”
Throughout the eight hours of testimony, jurors were shown numerous crime scene and autopsy photographs. Many jurors covered their mouths, and some momentarily looked away. Some in attendance became visibly upset, including Jesse Valencia’s mother, Linda, who at one point left the courtroom in tears.
Swingle attempted to establish a timeline of Valencia’s final hours. He said that after Valencia finished his eight-hour shift on June 4 at Campus Inn, 1112 E. Stadium Blvd., he called his friend, Jennifer Witherspoon, and went to an engagement party hosted by her.
On Tuesday, Witherspoon testified that Valencia was at the East Campus party for about three hours before leaving with friends Eric Thurston and Edward McDevitt. McDevitt testified that he talked with and kissed Valencia on a sidewalk outside the party around 2:50 or 3 a.m. on June 5, before they left in opposite directions. McDevitt also testified that Valencia called him twice between 3 and 3:15 a.m.
Witherspoon testified that she spoke with Valencia briefly on the front porch of her residence before he left about 3:30 a.m. Swingle said Valencia spoke to one other friend about 3:40 a.m. before walking home alone to his Wilson Avenue apartment.
Valencia’s body was found about 2:10 p.m. June 5 near the corner of Wilson Avenue and Williams Street, about five blocks from his apartment. Boone County Medical Examiner Valerie Rao testified that Valencia was legally intoxicated at the time of his death.
In further questioning, Leftwich repeatedly asked Rao about spots of blood found a distance from Valencia’s body at the crime scene. The blood appeared in small spots around his body and on a soda can near the scene.
Rao said the blood was transported by flies that settled on the body and then moved. Leftwich questioned whether the blood could have come directly from the throat wound and then asked whether the weapon used could have been something other than a knife.
“It could have come from any serrated edge, could it not?” Leftwich asked. “You couldn’t tell if it was a knife from the autopsy, could you?”
Rao answered that a knife was the most likely weapon, but said the throat wound could have come from something else.
Rao said in testimony that the weapon left an incised wound that severed jugular veins and nicked Valencia’s spine.
Much argument centered on the purported murder weapon, which Swingle said Rios carried with him on and off duty. Swingle repeatedly showed witnesses a knife similar in style and color to the Spyderco serrated knife he said Rios carried. Circuit Judge Ellen Roper, however, would not allow the sample knife into evidence, and it was not shown to the jury.
Swingle said he did not think the prosecution’s lack of a weapon would hurt the state’s case against Rios.
“I do think it’s very suspicious that they never found a knife,” he said after Tuesday’s proceedings.
Sean Morris, a Columbia police officer who worked with Rios, said Rios carried a serrated knife and often clipped it to his right pocket.
At the scene, Columbia Police Detective Jeff Nichols said he found a hair on Valencia’s chest that was held there with dried blood. He said the hair was longer than any body hair on Valencia, and that he collected several other hairs at the scene. The hair was placed in a white box, sealed and locked in an evidence cabinet.
Leftwich contended that Nichols said in his initial evidence report, filed June 6, that he found one hair on Valencia’s body.
“Is that what you wrote?” Leftwich asked several times.
“I wrote what I saw,” Nichols said.
Also at issue Tuesday was the time between the collection of the evidence on June 6 and its analysis on Dec. 7. Dori Burke, an investigator in the medical examiner’s office who examined the hairs, said in testimony to Swingle that she found several hairs in the box she received from the police.
Leftwich said that in a deposition she took from Burke on Feb. 24, Burke said she could not remember how many hairs there were or what type they were.
“So in February you didn’t remember, but today you do?” Leftwich said.
“Yes,” Burke said.
After Tuesday’s testimony, when asked if witnesses were differing between their deposition and testimony, Leftwich said they were not differing but “needed to be reminded.”
Prosecutors spent hours trying to demonstrate that Rios used a restraint to subdue Valencia, render him unconscious and then cut his throat.
Todd Burke, a trainer with MU’s Law Enforcement Training Institute, testified that Rios was a student in a defensive technique course Burke taught in 1997, which included learning the unilateral vascular neck restraint. Todd Burke said the restraint, commonly referred to as a “shoulder pin,” is designed to inhibit blood flow and oxygen to the brain. He said the restraint takes three to seven seconds to render someone unconscious.
Todd Burke demonstrated the restraint on Swingle as jurors peered over the jury box to see him pull the special prosecutor to the floor of the courtroom.
Rao testified that the bruises, contusions and abrasions on Valencia’s upper torso, jaw, back and shoulder blades were consistent with using the unilateral vascular neck restraint. She added that the petechial hemorrhaging, in which blood capillaries in the head burst from lack of oxygen, was consistent with the use of the neck restraint.
Rao said the amount of blood on Valencia’s neck and back, and the lack of blood on the rest of Valencia’s body, was consistent with the college student’s lying down on his back while his throat was cut.
Rao added that the condition of the body led her to think Valencia was killed between 3 and 4 a.m.
Leftwich said Rao could not know whether Valencia was standing up or sitting down from the autopsy, to which Rao replied that she had made the determination at the crime scene.
Leftwich also argued that after Todd Burke demonstrated the unilateral vascular neck restraint to Rao and Swingle about one month ago, Rao was relying on Swingle’s theory instead of her own medical expertise.
The trial resumes at 8:30 a.m. today at the Boone County Courthouse.