NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – A judge has dismissed a second-degree murder charge against a former Las Cruces police officer accused of killing a man with a chokehold. On day four of the trial, 3rd Judicial Judge Douglas Driggers dismissed the charge against Christopher Smelser, via a direct verdict, which ended the trial. The trial began Monday, July 11.
Thursday, Smelser’s defense team argued witness testimony didn’t match the evidence of the case and they argued that the state failed to meet the burden of proof in the case. They say the state didn’t prove Smelser intended to kill Valenzuela when he performed the chokehold.
The defense then asked for a directed verdict and Judge Driggers granted the request. “Based on the evidence presented to the court, the court is not satisfied that substantial evidence has been presented to show the requisite essential element of intent,” said Judge Driggers.
Police say in February 2020 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.
Once Valenzuela was on the ground, Smelser performed a chokehold 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. The city of Las Cruces settled a civil lawsuit with Valenzuela’s family for $6.5 million.