Linda Valencia hasn’t watched the news on television since her son, Jesse, was killed in June 2004.
But Friday afternoon, her mother called her at work and told her the news that the man convicted in her 23-year-old son’s slaying had been granted a new trial.
Conviction:On May 21, 2005, former Columbia police Officer Steven Rios was convicted of first-degree murder for the death of MU student Jesse Valencia.
Sentence:On July 5, 2005, Rios was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Appeal:On Friday, Rios’ conviction was overturned because of the use of two hearsay statements. He was granted a new trial.
“I pretty much fell apart,” said Linda Valencia.
“Jesse’s sisters and his father and I have just barely begun to heal from it. For him (Steven Rios) to get a new trial and make us relive this again, I think it’s very unfair.”
Jesse Valencia’s body was found in a neighbor’s yard near his East Campus home, his throat slashed.
A Clay County jury convicted Rios, a Columbia police officer who was in a relationship with Jesse Valencia, of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in May 2005. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
On Friday, a three-judge panel of the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals overturned Rios’ conviction. The appellate court ruled that Rios was denied a fair trial because of two hearsay statements.
Reached at his home in Harrodsburg, Ky., Jesse Valencia’s stepfather, Lupe Valencia, said he was “a little bit chapped” to hear that Rios had been granted a new trial.
The appeals court overturned Rios’ conviction on one of the four points contained in his appeal: two statements made by Jesse Valencia that were entered into evidence through the testimony of his friend, Joan Sheridan.
During the trial, Sheridan testified that she had a conversation with the pre-law student around May 20 in which he implied that if Rios did not “take care of” a municipal ticket he wrote Jesse Valencia the night they met, he was going to tell Columbia police about their affair.
Sheridan also testified that a few days before Jesse Valencia was found dead, he had told her that he was planning to ask Rios if he was married because he didn’t want to be involved with a married man.
Attorneys for Rios objected to the statements during the trial, but Judge Ellen S. Roper, who presided over the trial in Boone County, overruled the objections.
“Based on this (hearsay) evidence, the State argued that the jury should draw the inference that Mr. Valencia did in fact carry out his stated intentions, did confront Mr. Rios about being married and getting his ticket fixed and, therefore, provided Mr. Rios with a motive to kill Mr. Valencia,” Judge Patricia Breckenridge wrote in the opinion.
Special Prosecutor Morley Swingle, the prosecuting attorney in Cape Girardeau since 1997, tried the case. He said the state Attorney General’s office will ask the appellate court for a rehearing and will ask for the Missouri Supreme Court to hear the case if the rehearing request is denied.
But even if Rios gets a second trial, Swingle said, it is unlikely that the loss of the hearsay evidence will significantly weaken the state’s case.
More important to the state’s case is DNA evidence linking Rios to the slaying, he said. During the trial, the state presented hairs and skin cells collected from Jesse Valencia’s body that matched Rios’ DNA profile — the “smoking gun” linking Rios to the killing, prosecutors said at the time.
Linda Valencia talked to her son on the phone every day, and he told her that Rios was stalking him. She pleaded with him to come home. On June 3, 2004, he agreed to return to Kentucky the following week.
He never made it.
After Valencia was found, Rios identified the body. Within days, he became a suspect. He was on leave from the Columbia Police Department when he called the department, threatening to hurt himself.
He was taken into protective custody and moved to a mental health center, but he escaped and threatened to jump off a parking garage until crisis negotiators talked him down.
A five-day trial with more than 60 witnesses ensued. Rios was convicted and sentenced.
Linda Valencia said she makes daily visits to her son’s grave, which sits on her farm near Perryville, Ky.
“I planted white roses on his grave,” she said. “They were his favorite.”
Linda Valencia attended every one of Rios’ hearings and went to the trial.
And while she said the reversal is ripping her apart, she will be at all of Rios’ upcoming hearings.
“I want Steven Rios to know that he’s got a fight on his hands,” Linda Valencia said. “I’m not going to give up as long as I’m alive.”