Ex-officer convicted in student's death

Sunday, May 22, 2005

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- A former Columbia police officer was convicted Saturday of first-degree murder in the death of a gay college student with whom he had an affair.

The jury, brought in from Clay County, deliberated nine hours before convicting Steven Rios of slashing Jesse Valencia's throat last June.

Rios, 28, was also convicted of armed criminal action and faces a mandatory sentence of life without parole for the murder conviction.

The jury recommended a 10-year term for armed criminal action. Formal sentencing was set for July 5.

Prosecutors said Rios, a married father, killed Valencia, 23, to keep him from revealing their relationship. Public defender Valerie Leftwich had contended that an affair was not proof of murder.

The jury began deliberating shortly after 2 p.m. Friday and broke for the night about 9:30 p.m., before resuming deliberations Saturday morning.

Valencia, who attended the University of Missouri-Columbia, was last seen at a party early June 5, 2004, in his neighborhood east of campus. A neighbor in the building reported hearing Valencia arguing with someone early that morning. The student's body was found later that day in a nearby yard.

Rios met Valencia in April 2004, when he arrested the student for interfering with him and another officer as they answered a police call about a loud party. During his trial, he testified that their sexual relationship began that night.

Rios admitted that he lied about the affair, but claimed he was with co-workers when Valencia was killed.

The Columbia Daily Tribune reported on its Web site that the former officer's wife, Libby, and her family issued a statement through their attorney. The statement expressed belief in Rios' innocence and predicted his conviction would be overturned, the newspaper reported.

Key evidence in the case included DNA recovered from under Valencia's fingernails and hair found on his chest, both of which matched Rios. Leftwich said that evidence merely showed the pair had contact and that DNA can linger for days.

Following Valencia's murder, the former policeman had twice threatened suicide and for a while was held in a state mental hospital at Fulton. In January, Rios was moved to the Boone County Jail pending trial. He resigned from the police department June 16 and was charged July 1.

Leftwich said Rios' attempts at suicide were not evidence that he killed Valencia but merely showed Rios was distraught because his sexual relationship with the college student had been discovered.

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