Las Cruces officer accused of putting suspect in deadly chokehold; fired

New Mexico

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (KRQE) – As the nation continues to protest police brutality following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a New Mexico police officer is being brought up on manslaughter charges, for putting a suspect in a deadly chokehold.

Police lapel video shows how a traffic stop took an unexpected turn for three Las Cruces police officers, one of them was now-former officer Christopher Smelser. It started when police pulled over a blue pickup one early morning back in February, following reports of a burglar near Three Crosses and Alameda.

“When I run your plates, it’s showing that the registration and the insurance is expired,” one officer is heard saying in the video. Inside, they found two women and Antonio Valenzuela, who was sitting in the back seat.

It didn’t take them long to discover there was a warrant out for Valenzuela for a parole violation.

“Can you step out on that side for me, bro?” the officer asked. In the body camera video, Valenzuela takes off with officers hot on his heels. They tried tasing him, with no effect, and they later said he was reaching for a knife when they tackled him.

Once the officers got Valenzuela to the ground, officer Smelser applied what’s called a “lateral vascular neck restraint,” a choke-hold technique meant, at most, to render someone unconscious.

“I’m going to f***ing choke you out, bro,” Smelser is heard saying.

But, that’s not all it did.

“He’s out,” an officer said.

“He’s out?” another officer asked.

“Yeah, we’ve got him detained,” the first officer explained.

Once officers put Valenzuela in cuffs, they didn’t initially realize that anything was wrong.

“He snored right now,” the officer said.

It’s not until more than five minutes later that someone suggests checking Valenzuela’s pulse. After another couple of minutes, EMS showed up to start CPR, but Valenzuela was pronounced dead at the scene.

On Friday, more than three months later, Officer Smelser was fired from the department and charged with involuntary manslaughter.

In New Mexico, involuntary manslaughter is classified as a fourth-degree felony, which comes with a sentence of up to 18 months in prison.

It’s unclear from the video how long Valenzuela was in that chokehold.

State Police, who were immediately assigned to investigate the death, sent out a news release the day after it happened, describing how Valenzuela ran from officers before they tased him and put him in handcuffs. However that release did not mention anything about an officer using the neck restraint.

Las Cruces police now say, they banned the use of that technique after this incident. They also say Smelser’s firing came in response to Valenzuela’s autopsy report, which they received on Thursday.


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