ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Panel deliberates more than eight hours, will continue this afternoon
BERNALILLO – Early Monday, prosecutors loaded several large boxes of case files into the back of a gray SUV and drove slowly out of the parking lot outside the state district courthouse here.
It was a clear sign that lawyers have finished their part of the murder trial of former Albuquerque police officer Levi Chavez.
Now it’s time to wait for a decision from the nine-woman, three-man jury who spent more than eight hours deliberating Monday without reaching a verdict.
Attorneys in the case told the Journal that deliberations won’t resume until 1 p.m. today because one of the jurors has a morning appointment.
The prosecution team, Senior Trial Attorney Bryan McKay and Assistant District Attorney Anne Keener, will wait. As will attorney David Serna, who is representing Chavez, accused of first-degree murder and evidence tampering for allegedly killing his 26-year-old wife, Tera Chavez, in the couple’s home near Los Lunas in 2007 and staging her death to make it look like a suicide. The defense contends her death was, in fact, a suicide.
A throng of local reporters and a crew from “Dateline NBC” will wait.
As will members of Levi Chavez’s and Tera Chavez’s families, many of whom didn’t miss a minute of testimony or argument in the emotionally charged five-week trial, which began June 10 and ended with dramatic closing arguments Friday.
The jury has a tall order.
More than 40 people, including Levi Chavez himself, testified in the trial. It will be the jury’s job to determine which ones were credible and which ones weren’t.
• A few of Levi Chavez’s mistresses, some of whom either were Albuquerque Police Department officers in 2007, or still are, and one of whom offered testimony that contradicted Chavez’s story about where he was, according to his version of events, when Tera shot herself.
• Members of Tera’s family, including her father, her younger brother and her twin brother. In contrast to the defense’s picture of a despondent, suicidal Tera Chavez, her blood relatives all testified that she had plans for the future, an abiding dedication to her two children and a burgeoning career. Suicide, they said, would not have been an option for her.
• Nationally recognized experts in crime scene reconstruction and forensic pathology who testified for the defense that evidence they reviewed in the case supported the theory that Tera killed herself. Serna also put on the stand a “suicidologist” – who famously determined in the 1990s that President Bill Clinton’s deputy White House counsel Vince Foster committed suicide – to say Tera died by her own hand.
• The controversial former Valencia County sheriff’s detective who investigated Levi Chavez for Tera’s death. Aaron Jones was often combative with Serna on the stand. He was the only witness threatened with contempt of court by state District Judge George P. Eichwald. Jones stood by his investigation under a relentless cross-examination by Serna.
• Two APD officers who went to the Chavez home – out of their jurisdiction – after Chavez called Valencia County 911 around 9 p.m. on Oct. 21, 2007, to report that Tera had shot herself in the head. Addressing long-standing controversy over their involvement at the death scene, the APD officers testified that they cut up a bloody mattress where Tera’s body had been lying with permission from and under the supervision of Valencia County Sheriff’s Office officials as a courtesy to the Chavezes’ children.
Jurors also will consider more than 300 pieces of evidence. Many of those are crime scene photographs taken by a former VCSO evidence technician, who was working her first crime scene that night in 2007, and by a field investigator for the state Office of the Medical Investigator.
Perhaps the most high-profile piece of evidence now sitting in the jury room on the second floor of the courthouse here is the gun that killed Tera Chavez – her husband’s APD-issued Glock 9 mm pistol.
The gun was the subject of days’ worth of contentious scrutiny and testimony during the trial.
“If there’s a smoking gun in this case, it is” the gun itself, prosecution crime scene and firearms expert Mark Radosevich said from the witness stand.
There’s also a lot the jury didn’t hear, including testimony and evidence that was excluded during bitter pretrial evidentiary hearings.
On Monday, the courthouse, which has been abuzz with spectators, family members and members of the news media, was oddly quiet. The parking lot outside was half as full as it had been during the trial.
The jury did not leave the courthouse Monday for lunch. Instead, court staff delivered food from Dion’s Pizza to the jurors.
Three of the jurors, however, took several smoke breaks ranging from 10 to almost 20 minutes outside the courthouse.
Neither Serna nor Levi Chavez made an appearance at the courthouse all day.
Tera Chavez’s mother, father, brother and sister-in-law made a brief appearance in the courthouse lobby around 10 a.m. They said they planned to spend the day in the area and wait for a verdict.
Prosecutors McKay and Keener drove away around 9 a.m. with the majority of their case – which has captivated the state – in the back of McKay’s vehicle.