Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office has taken over the prosecution of a former Las Cruces Police Department officer who it said killed a man using a “vascular neck restraint” during an arrest in February.
Christopher Smelser, the former officer, now faces second-degree murder charges. The 3rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Doña Ana County had charged him with manslaughter earlier this year, but that case was dismissed without prejudice Thursday.
According to a charging document filed in the case Thursday, on Feb. 29, Smelser “did kill Antonio Valenzuela without lawful justification or excuse, and without sufficient provocation, upon a sudden quarrel, or in the heat of passion, and the defendant knew that his acts created a strong probability of death or great bodily harm to Antonio Valenzuela.”
Attorney General Hector Balderas said his office worked with the 3rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office and determined the evidence necessitated the more serious charge, according to the release.
But Smelser’s attorneys, Susana Macias Muñoz and Amy Orlando, countered that the facts do not support any charges at all against their client.
“The facts are what they are, and they do not support any charge against Mr. Smelser much less second-degree murder,” Muñoz wrote in a statement. “There has been absolutely no new investigation and no new facts that would warrant the charge being amended from manslaughter to second-degree murder. This move is solely the AG’s attempt at becoming relevant and keeping the case in the media spotlight.”
Third District DA Mark D’Antonio said his office is seeking to ensure justice is served for all parties.
“Since this incident occurred, Attorney General Hector Balderas and his staff have been in contact with my office regarding this case, as well as police and law enforcement reforms and accountability for the use of deadly force including the ban placed on chokehold restraint techniques,” D’Antonio wrote in the news release. “In the pursuit for justice and given the seriousness of the charges against Las Cruces Police Officer Smelser, we agreed that this case be adopted and prosecuted by the New Mexico Attorney General.”
Sam Bregman, who represents Valenzuela’s family, said they are very happy with the decision.
“It’s the first step in getting justice for Tony,” Bregman said. “We have been insisting all along since charges were first brought that this was a second-degree murder case and we are glad the Attorney General’s Office sees it in the same way. We applaud them in their decision in taking this case over.”