First day in preliminary hearing held for former Las Cruces officer accused of murder

New Mexico

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — A preliminary hearing for former Las Cruces police officer Christopher Smelser was held in Las Cruces on Thursday morning.

Smelser is facing second-degree murder charges in the death of Antonio Valenzuela.

Smelser allegedly killed Valenzuela on Feb. 29 while restraining him following a foot chase and struggle. According to the Las Cruces Police Department, Smelser used a vascular neck restraint, which has been prohibited by the department.

The two-day hearing began with testimony from Las Cruces Police Department Lieutenant Shane Brisco. 

Special Assistant Attorney Zach Jones questioned Brisco about officer training involving the VNR. Brisco said that Smelser used a bulldog choke hold, used the improper position and used it for “one minute too long.”

Officials said Smelser held Valenzuela in the hold for one minute and 40 seconds; the maximum time a hold should be held is 40 seconds, according to Brisco.

Smelser’s attorney Amy Orlando cross-examined Brisco, asking if he thought Smelser’s use of the restraint was justified. Brisco said he believed that Smelser’s use of the VNR was an unreasonable application in this situation.

Andrew Tuton also testified, Tuton was the officer with Smelser during the chase and when Valenzuela was held in vascular neck restraint.

Tuton was asked what he learned during his training about how long to hold a vascular neck restraint.

“Until it becomes effective, my understanding my memory of the teaching from Luitenant Brisco was that it can take approximately 8 to 10 seconds to get in the right position, and I believe up to 30 seconds and then after 30 seconds complications could arise,” said Andrew Tuton a Las Cruces Police Officer.

Valenzuela was pulled over for a traffic stop on Feb. 29, and had an open warrant for a parole violation. He allegedly fled on foot and officers used their tasers on him twice without any effect, officials said.

Smelser was originally charged with manslaughter. After working with the District Attorney to fully review the case, the Office of the Attorney General determined that the evidence warranted a charge of second-degree murder.

In August, the City of Las Cruces settled a civil lawsuit with Valenzuela’s family.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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