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Suicide expert testifies in Chavez trial

Dr. Alan Berman, an expert in suicidology, testifies in the Levi Chavez trial on Wednesday, June 26, 2013. Berman read from Tera Chavez's diary and text messages she sent a year before she died. (Dean Hanson/Journal)
Dr. Alan Berman, an expert in suicidology, testifies in the Levi Chavez trial on Wednesday, June 26, 2013. Berman read from Tera Chavez's diary and text messages she sent a year before she died. (Dean Hanson/Journal)
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12:52 p.m.

BERNALILLO — Clinical psychologist Alan Berman, who specializes in the study of suicide, didn’t interview anyone when making his determination on whether Tera Chavez killed herself.

Instead, he reviewed her diary, text messages she had sent, her medical records — primarily from the two times she gave birth — and two notes found at her death scene.

Berman also read transcripts of depositions taken in a wrongful death lawsuit against her husband, former APD officer Levi Chavez, although he did not read Levi Chavez’s deposition along the way toward reaching a conclusion that Tera was at “acute risk” for killing herself and that her death was “consistent with a suicide.”

The Washington, D.C.-based expert in “suicidology” made those concessions under cross-examination this morning by Bryan McKay, senior trial attorney for the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

Still, Berman said, he believes Tera Chavez had “low self esteem and self hate” because her happiness was tied up in the “emotionally abusive” relationship she had with her philandering husband.

He also testified that Tera was “depressed,” although he couldn’t say whether she was clinically depressed, “angry” and suffered from insomnia — all “acute risk factors” for suicide.

As evidence, he pointed to several text messages Tera sent Levi between August and October 2006.

She died in October 2007. According to prosecutors, Levi Chavez shot his wife in the mouth with his APD-issued pistol in the couple’s home near Los Lunas and tried to make it look like a suicide.

One text read: “I’m a loser. I’ve failed at everything, especially you. I want to die.”

Another read: “I’m tired of being your dumb wife. You treat me like shit … Please respect me … I have a job.”

Others, according to Berman’s reading of the texts — which were admitted into evidence — indicated that Tera Chavez couldn’t sleep, that she was sad and that she felt “ignored” by her husband.

Tera’s diary entries, which Berman also read, were dated between 2004 and 2007.

One, from July 2004, read: “I depend on him for life itself.”

The next month, she wrote: “Sometimes I just want to close my eyes and vanish.”

And in June 2007, Tera wrote: “I can’t live like this anymore.”

What Berman called “passive suicidal thoughts” were a consistently revealed pattern in her writings.

He made several statements that drew reactions from Tera Chavez’s family in the courtroom.

One in particular came after a question from Levi Chavez’s attorney, David Serna, about whether people sometimes kill themselves when their children aren’t around.

The Chavezes’ two children were with Levi’s father in Santa Rosa on the weekend she died.

“She could have taken her children with her to keep them” from her husband, Berman said. “Maybe it’s good that her children weren’t there.”

On cross-examination, McKay pointed out that Berman hadn’t read Tera’s final two diary entries for the jury.

McKay said neither of those entries were consistent with despair, hopelessness or a desire to die.

The last lines of Tera’s final diary entry, from July 12, 2007, read: ” … So goodbye to the person I used to be. Welcome new day. Happiness!!”

10:58 a.m.

BERNALILLO–The defense theory that Tera Chavez killed herself in October 2007 has center stage this morning in state District Court, as a nationally famous expert in “suicidology” reads passages from her diary and text messages she sent a year before she died to support his claims.

Dr. Alan Berman is testifying out of order due to scheduling issues as a witness for Levi Chavez, who is on trial for murder in Tera’s death.

Berman has been in the national spotlight before, including as a psychologist who determined that former President Bill Clinton’s deputy White House counsel Vince Foster committed suicide.

On direct examination by Levi Chavez’s attorney, David Serna, Berman testified that entries in Tera’s diary dating back to 2004, texts she sent to Levi between August and October 2006 and deposition testimony from her family and friends are “consistent with” someone who was at “acute risk” for suicide.


–The following article appeared on page A1 of the Wednesday, June 26, 2013 edition of Albuquerque Journal

Tera Chavez died instantly

BERNALILLO – Tera Chavez died pretty much instantly.

A single bullet from a Glock 9 mm pistol, whose muzzle was at least an inch into Chavez’s mouth at the time the shot was fired, destroyed her brain stem.

That was the testimony on Tuesday from Patricia McFeeley, the veteran forensic pathologist who supervised the autopsy performed on the 26-year-old’s body in October 2007.

It was a key statement as prosecutors pushed into the third week of their attempt to convince a Sandoval County jury that Levi Chavez, Tera’s husband and an Albuquerque police officer at the time, pulled the trigger.

That’s because, according to McFeeley’s testimony, Tera Chavez would not have been able to perform “any voluntary act” after the shot was fired. In McFeeley’s opinion, that would include applying the five pounds of pressure needed to depress the mechanism that released the bullet clip from her husband’s APD-issued semiautomatic handgun, according to her testimony.

Dr. Patricia McFeeley, the former chief medical investigator for the Office of the Medical Examiner, testifies about the autopsy report during the murder trial of Levi Chavez on Tuesday, June 25, 2013. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Dr. Patricia McFeeley, the former chief medical investigator for the Office of the Medical Examiner, testifies about the autopsy report during the murder trial of Levi Chavez on Tuesday, June 25, 2013. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Regina Sanchez, one of Levi Chavez's numerous paramours, testifies in the Levi Chavez murder trial on Tuesday, June 25, 2013. Sanchez said that Chavez moved in with her for a few months in 2006, which was prior to Tera Chavez's death. (KOAT-TV)

Regina Sanchez, one of Levi Chavez’s numerous paramours, testifies in the Levi Chavez murder trial on Tuesday, June 25, 2013. Sanchez said that Chavez moved in with her for a few months in 2006, which was prior to Tera Chavez’s death. (KOAT-TV)

While testifying during the Levi Chavez murder trial on Tuesday, June 25, 2013, DNA expert Alanna Williams holds the gun that killed Tera Chavez. Williams testified that the gun carried DNA from both Tera chavez and Levi Chavez. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

While testifying during the Levi Chavez murder trial on Tuesday, June 25, 2013, DNA expert Alanna Williams holds the gun that killed Tera Chavez. Williams testified that the gun carried DNA from both Tera chavez and Levi Chavez. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

Aaron Jones, the lead detective who investigated Tera’s death for the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office, testified earlier in the trial that the Glock’s magazine was “unseated,” meaning it wasn’t locked into the butt of the gun, when he arrived at the Chavezes’ home near Los Lunas. Levi Chavez had called 911 around 9 p.m. on Oct. 21, 2007, and reported that wife had shot herself in the head.

McFeeley’s testimony came over boisterous objections from Levi Chavez’s attorney, David Serna. It took two conferences at the bench with state District Judge George P. Eichwald, both demanded by Serna, for her to be able to give her opinion on the possibility of Tera releasing the magazine after the fatal shot had been fired.

The DNA expert who tested the Glock said she found Tera’s DNA on the muzzle and samples from both Chavezes on the grip.

Earlier Tuesday, two witnesses testified about a crime scene photograph presented by the prosecution that showed Chavez’s uniform hanging in an armoire.

The witnesses, an APD officer with whom Levi Chavez had an affair in late 2006 and the department’s property supervisor, said APD field officers are issued only one uniform. Chavez was in street clothes when investigators arrived at the home.

According to Chavez, he had worked APD shifts the two days before he discovered his wife’s body. He also has said he hadn’t been to the home since the morning of Oct. 19.

Initial finding

McFeeley’s initial finding was that Tera Chavez had committed suicide.

She testified Tuesday that determination was based, in part, on information that had been passed along from law enforcement that Tera had killed herself.

That has been Levi Chavez’s assertion since the night he reported his wife’s death.

In early November 2007, Jones came to the state Office of the Medical Investigator where McFeeley was working at the time. She retired in 2008.

Jones showed her crime scene photos and told her about “further history that raised concerns,” so OMI changed the manner of Tera’s death from suicide to undetermined.

While on the stand, McFeeley testified that a crime scene photo appeared to show that one of Tera Chavez’s teeth may have been chipped.

“There is the potential for a part of a broken tooth,” she said, pointing to one of Tera’s lower right incisors.

Prosecutors did not point out the significance of the possibly broken tooth, but Assistant District Attorney Anne Keener had McFeeley restate that the Glock had been well into Tera’s mouth when the shot was fired.

Serna challenged that portion of McFeeley’s testimony. He spent more than 10 minutes on cross-examination trying to get McFeeley to say the autopsy report she signed off on contradicted that.

Although the report made no specific mention of a broken tooth, McFeeley said, it did not say there had been no damage to any of Tera’s teeth.

McFeeley also testified that there was Benadryl found in Tera Chavez’s system, as well as a “higher than usual dose” of acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. The drugs, she testified, would have been enough to render Tera Chavez “sleepy but not unconscious.”

Her testimony included another detail, as Serna asked whether there had been any medical evidence of a struggle, such as DNA evidence found under Tera’s fingernails during the autopsy: Tera’s fingernails weren’t tested or sent to a lab.

Tera’s and Levi’s DNA

Alanna Williams was working for the New Mexico crime lab as a DNA specialist in the months after Tera Chavez’s death.

Williams, who now works for the APD crime lab, tested the gun that killed Tera, according to her testimony Tuesday.

On the gun’s muzzle, she found blood that had DNA matching Tera’s DNA, Williams testified.

And on the Glock’s grip, Williams said from the witness stand, she found an equal-parts mixture of both Tera’s and Levi’s DNA.

She said her testing was aimed at avoiding any blood that was on the grip. Several portions of the Glock were covered in blood when Valencia County Sheriff’s investigators recovered the pistol.

Williams said she wanted to determine who had actually handled the weapon.

Levi Chavez told investigators that he had taught his wife to shoot the gun. He told them he wanted her to be able to use it for home defense because his truck had recently been stolen from in front of the couple’s home.

Serna asked Williams whether placing the gun in Tera’s dead hand would have been likely to provide enough DNA for a “touch DNA” sample.

She answered that it would have been “less likely” to do so than consistent handling of the weapon, but added that she wasn’t positive the DNA samples she collected from the Glock’s grip hadn’t come from blood.

Chavez told investigators that he carried a personally owned Kimber pistol while on duty for APD.

That gun was in the trunk of his police car when VCSO deputies arrived at the Chavezes’ home the night Levi called 911.

APD officers are allowed to carry their own weapons on duty, provided they have passed qualification tests with those guns and have received permission to use them for police work from APD brass.

Chavez told VCSO investigators that he had permission from Police Chief Ray Schultz to carry the Kimber on duty.

According to documents filed by attorneys for Tera’s family in a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Levi Chavez, he had qualified to use the weapon but didn’t have permission to carry it on duty. That has not been disclosed during the murder trial.

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