Former Columbia police Officer Steven Rios was transported to a prison facility in Fulton on Tuesday after he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder of 23-year-old MU student Jesse Valencia.
Circuit Court Judge Ellen Roper sentenced Rios, 28, to life in prison, plus an additional 10 years in prison for armed criminal action. She ordered both sentences to be served consecutively. Prosecutors did not pursue the death penalty.
Rios was taken to the Fulton Reception and Diagnostic Center, where he will be evaluated, said John Fougere, a spokesman with the Missouri Department of Corrections. There, Rios’ mental health and protection status in prison will be assessed to determine where he will be placed.
“Considering his former status as a police officer, his protective custody assessment will be extremely significant,” Fougere said.
Fougere said most assessments at the Fulton facility take between two weeks and two months.
After Rios’ evaluation, Fougere said case workers plan to recommend to executive staff at the state’s Division of Adult Institutions a location where Rios will be imprisoned. Options include one of Missouri’s five maximum security prisons or a facility in another state. The closest maximum security prison to Columbia is the Jefferson City Correctional Center.
“We try to do the best thing for inmate security and institutional security,” Fougere said.
Fougere said that if Rios were moved to another state, the Missouri Department of Corrections would not release his whereabouts.
There are nearly 30,000 people incarcerated in Missouri prisons, and 53 who have been sentenced in Missouri but are serving terms in other states, Fougere said. Rios is considered a high-profile inmate because of media coverage of the case and his status as a former police officer. That status makes him a candidate for interstate exchange.
Rios, who appeared at Tuesday’s hearing shackled and wearing an orange county jail uniform, said he had ineffective counsel during his May murder trial and said his conviction was based on distortions of the truth.
“There were so many things that should have been considered,” Rios said.
Rios again proclaimed his innocence during the proceedings and told Roper he would file an appeal. Roper directed new public defenders to be selected for his appeal.
Before being led away from the third-floor courtroom, Rios, with tears in his eyes, briefly glanced at his wife, Libby, and brother, Mike.
A Clay County jury convicted Rios of Valencia’s murder on May 27 after nearly nine hours of deliberation.
Valencia was found dead with his throat cut on June 5, 2004, near his East Campus apartment.
Special prosecutor Morley Swingle of Cape Girardeau said he was surprised Rios spoke at the hearing, adding that he thought Rios’ public defenders, Valerie Leftwich and Stephen Richey, were “very, very capable.”
“It’s become standard practice in Missouri to claim ineffective counsel after a conviction,” Swingle said. “I’m confident his conviction will be affirmed upon appeal.”
Geoffrey Preckshot, a spokesman for Rios’ family, said they believe Rios is innocent and will be “vindicated upon appeal.”
Valencia’s mother, Linda, spoke during Tuesday’s hearing and asked Roper to issue the maximum allowable sentence. She also said she didn’t have a chance to say many of the things she had planned.
“When I got up there, I got so emotional,” she said. “I could hear Jesse saying, ‘Oh my God, Mom. You could have done better than that.’”
Linda Valencia, of Perryville, Ky., said she had planned to talk about inconsistencies in Rios’ trial testimony and how her son’s death had devastated his close-knit family in Kentucky.
Following the hearing, Linda Valencia, who tightly gripped a picture of her son during Rios’ sentencing, said she is angry the former police officer has decided to appeal his conviction.
“I don’t think it’s fair for him to get an appeal,” she said. “I want it to be over.”