LAS CRUCES, N.M. (KRQE) – The trial for the former Las Cruces Police Officer charged with murder starts Monday. Christopher Smelser was fired from the department, after body cam footage showed him putting a suspect in a choke hold, killing him in February 2020.
Body cam footage from February 29, 2020, shows Officer Smelser threatening to put Antonio Valenzuela in a chokehold. It all started with a routine traffic stop. Police pulled over a truck for expired insurance and registration. Officers found Valenzuela in the back seat and realized he was wanted on drug charges.
Things escalated when officers asked Valenzuela to get out of the truck and Valenzuela took off on foot. A couple of officers, including Officer Smelser, chased him. They tried tazing Valenzuela, but when that didn’t work, they tackled him.
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Once they had Valenzuela on the ground, Smelser performed a “lateral vascular neck restraint,” 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. The Valenzuela family, represented by attorney Sam Bregman, received $6.5M from the City of Las Cruces, as part of a settlement agreement.
Smelser was originally charged with manslaughter, but District Attorney Mark D’Antonio requested the Attorney General prosecute Smelser. Attorney General Hector Balderas agreed to take the case and upgraded the charge to second-degree murder. Opening statements begin on Monday.