Swingle talks to law students about work that goes into trying murder cases

Thursday, March 5, 2009
AARON EISENHAUER ~ aeisenhauer@semissourian.com
Morley Swingle

Last week, Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle went back to law school, giving students at University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law a behind-the-scenes look at the work that goes into trying a murder case.

Since graduating from the University of Missouri's law school, Swingle has prosecuted more than 70 homicides, and only lost two of them that went to trial, he said.

On Feb. 5, he spoke with about 70 students on the "anatomy of a murder prosecution," using the facts of the Boone County case against Steven Rios, which Swingle tried in 2005 and again in December when the defendant was granted a retrial.

Swingle said the majority of work in a murder prosecution occurs before he sets foot in a courtroom — generally about four hours of preparation for every hour spent litigating, he said.

Rios, a former Columbia, Mo., police officer, was convicted both times of the 2004 murder of Jesse Valencia, a 24-year-old prelaw student in his last year at University of Missouri.

Swingle was appointed as a special prosecutor in the case.

The case against Rios was purely circumstantial, Swingle said, making it a challenge.

Rios maintained his innocence through both murder trials and never confessed to the crime, though he did eventually admit to having an affair with Valencia, Swingle said.

Forensic evidence in the form of three body hairs found on Valencia's body implicated Rios, and witness testimony contradicted his original story that he didn't know the victim, Swingle said.

The Western District of Missouri Court of Appeals overturned the murder conviction in 2007, ruling the trial court erred in permitting hearsay statements from a witness who said Valencia told her he planned to confront Rios with the threat of exposing their affair if Rios did not make a municipal ticket go away.

Swingle said he prepares his closing argument weeks in advance, since he already knows most of the evidence that will come out at trial.

"I believe there's a best way to tell the story," he said.

Swingle also said he puts a great deal of work into his opening statement because research has shown that 80 percent of jurors will come to the same verdict at the end of a trial that they had decided on after listening to the opening statement.

In the Rios case, Swingle said his opening statement was an hour and 20 minutes long, and that he often memorizes his opening statement while exercising on the treadmill to help him retain information.

While Swingle was speaking, he said he spotted his former law school professor, Edward H. Hunvald, the same man whose class taught Swingle the hearsay exception he argued in the Rios case.

Hunvald, now retired, described Swingle as one of the "best prosecutors in the state of Missouri."

"He's a lawyer who really likes the English language, and knows how to use it," Hunvald said.

Swingle, on the other hand, called Hunvald the "scariest professor in law school," saying he's glad now he's gotten a chance since to learn what a nice guy he really was outside of the classroom.

"He sure had us fooled," Swingle said.

Hunvald said the two served on the same Missouri Supreme Court advisory committee and got know one another, but he wasn't surprised by Swingle's initial impression.

"I live by my reputation," Hunvald said.


Columbia, MO

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