LAS CRUCES, N.M. (KRQE) – The trial for Christopher Smelser, the former Las Cruces Police Officer accused of killing a man with a chokehold, began Monday, July 11. Smelser was fired from the department, after body cam footage showed him putting Antonio Valenzuela, in a choke hold and killing him in February 2020.
Police say they pulled over a truck for expired tags and found Valenzuela in the back seat. When officers realized he was wanted on drug charges, they asked Valenzuela to get out of the truck and he took off on foot. Multiple officers, including Smelser, chased him. They tried tasing Valenzuela, but when that didn’t work, they tackled him.
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Once Valenzuela was on the ground, Smelser performed a choke hold technique meant to render someone unconscious. It took the officers another five minutes before they realized Valenzuela had died. Smelser was fired from the department. Smelser was originally charged with manslaughter, but a district attorney asked the Attorney General to prosecute Smelser. Attorney General Hector Balderas agreed to take the case and upgraded the charge to second-degree murder.
In opening statements Monday, the state says that Valenzuela died from asphyxia from the neck restraint. They also say there was no combat between Valenzuela and law enforcement.
However, Smelser’s defense team says otherwise. They maintain that Valenzuela was not complying with the officer’s commands and officers tried many techniques to get him under control and even tased him. The defense says the state cannot prove it was Smelser’s choke hold that killed Valenzuela.
The defense says Valenzuela also had fentanyl in his system and says based on these findings the state cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was Smelser’s chokehold that killed Valenzuela.
The defense also maintains that the vascular neck restraint used is allowed by the Las Cruces Police Department.
In opening statements, both sides relied heavily on the lapel video from the incident to prove their case.
Witnesses who took the stand Monday included Smelser’s former supervisor at the time of the incident, a fellow Las Cruces police officer, and Valenzuela’s sister. The State focused heavily on the training officers received regarding the chokehold that Smelser used on Valenzuela. They asked officers on the stand about proper stabilizing techniques and how quickly subjects should come to. The Defense questioned officers about the aggressiveness of Valenzuela.
The city of Las Cruces settled a civil lawsuit with Valenzuela’s family for $6.5 million.