Ex-copís retrial in murder case kicks off today
Jury to decide whether Rios killed gay lover.

By JOE MEYER of the Tribuneís staff
Published Monday, December 1, 2008

The first-degree murder retrial of a former Columbia police officer accused of killing a University of Missouri student with whom he was having a homosexual affair began today with jury selection in Clay County.

Attorneys in the case against Steven Rios were scheduled to pick the jury from Clay County; proceedings are scheduled to return to Boone County tomorrow. Senior Judge Frank Conley is presiding over the trial.

Riosí retrial comes more than four years after the slaying of 23-year-old Jesse Valencia and 1Ĺ years after an appeals court overturned Riosí previous conviction and ordered a new trial. The appeals court ruled that hearsay testimony admitted at Riosí original trial could have prejudiced the jury against him.

Rios, 31, was convicted in May 2005 of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in Valenciaís death and sentenced to life in prison without parole. In April 2007, a three-judge panel of the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District vacated Riosí conviction and ordered a new trial. The Missouri Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

The retrial has stressed Boone Countyís budget for witness expenses. The county commission reallocated $15,000 from emergency and contingency funds in October to pay for travel expenses for witnesses who have now moved out of state, according to commission records. Special prosecutor Morley Swingle is not seeking the death penalty.

On June 5, 2004, Valencia was found with his throat slashed near his East Campus apartment. Rios, 27 and married at the time, met Valencia earlier in the year when the officer arrested Valencia while breaking up a party in the neighborhood.

During the homicide investigation, police received anonymous tips that Valencia was having an affair with a married officer and initially discounted Rios as a suspect. Rios twice threatened to commit suicide after his name surfaced in media reports, and he was charged after a four-week investigation.

The case that led to Columbia police investigating one of their own has gained national media coverage. It was the subject of an episode of CourtTVís "Forensic Files," and the station plans to send correspondents to this weekís proceedings.

The case is being retried because of testimony made during Riosí original trial from Joan Sheridan, a friend of Valenciaís who testified that Valencia told her he was going to ask Rios if he was married and threaten to disclose their affair to the police department. Swingle argued during the trial that Valenciaís comments to Sheridan established motive.

The prosecutor got the statements admitted under a hearsay exception, but the appeals panel disagreed. Other evidence admitted at trial included DNA from underneath Valenciaís fingernails and hairs recovered from Valenciaís shaven chest that matched Riosí DNA.

Rios is being represented by a different attorney, Moberly lawyer Gillis Leonard.