Judge Clears Former New Mexico Officer in Chokehold Death


A judge in New Mexico on Thursday cleared a former police officer who was accused of killing a man by using a chokehold technique, a practice that has come under intense scrutiny in recent years amid calls for police reform.

The former officer, Christopher Smelser of the Las Cruces Police Department, had faced a charge of second-degree murder in the death of Antonio Valenzuela, 40, after the father of four fled from officers in February 2020 during a traffic stop in Las Cruces, a city about 45 miles west of El Paso. The Police Department said that Mr. Valenzuela had an open warrant because of a parole violation and that officers had fired a Taser at him twice as he ran away.

After hearing arguments from the defense and prosecutors on Thursday in a trial that began on Monday, Judge Douglas Driggers of Third Judicial District Court dismissed the charge against Mr. Smelser, 29, who could have faced up to 15 years in prison had he been convicted.

“The issue before the court is whether or not substantial evidence has been presented to this jury to show that this defendant intended to commit a crime,” Judge Driggers said in court after hearing arguments, according to The Las Cruces Sun News. “That intent was to cause the death or great bodily injury of the victim.”

Judge Driggers said there was insufficient evidence and dismissed the case, the newspaper reported.

Hector Balderas, New Mexico’s attorney general, whose office prosecuted the case, said in a statement that Judge Driggers “got it wrong by not allowing the jury to rule on the evidence of the illegal chokehold.”

“The judge’s decision today essentially acquits Smelser without the opportunity for the empaneled jury of Smelser’s peers to consider the evidence against him,” he said.

Lawyers for Mr. Smelser did not immediately respond to phone calls and email messages on Thursday.

Police brutality and the use of chokeholds became a topic of national conversation after Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, killed George Floyd in 2020 by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes. Last year, Mr. Chauvin was convicted of murdering Mr. Floyd and was sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison. He has appealed.

Last week, Mr. Cauvin was also sentenced to 21 years in federal prison for civil rights violations.

The Las Cruces Police Department declined to comment on Mr. Smelser’s acquittal, but said previously in a statement that the neck restraint used on Mr. Valenzuela was prohibited immediately after the episode.

The City of Las Cruces settled with Mr. Valenzuela’s family in late 2020, agreeing to pay $6.5 million and make numerous policy changes for the Police Department, including banning chokeholds and immediately firing any officer who violates the policy.

Mr. Smelser, who was with the department for four years, was fired from the force in June 2020 after Mr. Valenzuela’s autopsy report was released, the department said.

The Las Cruces medical examiner’s office determined that Mr. Valenzuela had died from the injuries caused by being asphyxiated, the department said.

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