ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Sandoval County jury deliberating in the Levi Chavez murder case has found Levi Chavez not guilty.
When asked by reporters for his reaction after the verdict, Levi Chavez said “I’m not surprised. I’m not guilty. I’m innocent. I told you guys that from the beginning.”
After an intense walk out of the courthouse surrounded by cameras, reporters and family, Levi Chavez arrived at his car. One reporter asked what he plans to do now, “I’m going to go to church, pray my rosary and thank my Virgin Mary.”
Prosecutors Bryan McKay and Anne Keener declined to comment, as did the Tera Chavez’s family, except for one comment from Jopseph Cordova, Tera father. “Justice was not served today,” Cordova said.
Jurors — nine women and three men — received the case shortly after 5 p.m. Friday following closing arguments by defense attorney David Serna and prosecutors Anne Keener and Bryan McKay. But they didn’t begin deliberating until Monday because of the late hour.
They deliberated all day Monday and began again at about 1 p.m. today.
A female juror spoke with reporters about 45 minutes after the verdict was read in the courtroom.
The juror said the decision was difficult but unanimous. “I feel confident with my choice, but I cry for the family,” she said.
She said a lot of the jury’s discussion centered around testimony and evidence involving the gun that killed Tera — Levi Chavez’s department-issued Glock 9 mm pistol. “The gun was the biggest hang up, but there was no proof,” she said. “There was no solid evidence one way or the other.”
During the interview, the woman got emotional. “The whole situation is just sick,” she said through tears. “No matter what you choose, not everyone is going to be happy.”
She said some jurors even cried during deliberations.
Before reading the verdict Judge George P. Eichwald admonished the gallery, saying he had observed “a lot of animosity. You can cut the tension with a knife in here,” Eichwald said.
Eichwald instructed the Cordova family to leave the courtroom first after the verdict was read and asked Chavez family to wait a few minutes before departing.
Chavez was charged with first-degree murder and evidence tampering in an April 2011 indictment. Prosecutors alleged that he killed Tera around 1 a.m. on Oct. 21, 2007 — a Sunday — by creeping up on her while she was likely asleep in bed inside the couple’s home near Los Lunas, shoving his APD-issued Glock 9 mm pistol into the back of her mouth and pulling the trigger once.
The evidence tampering charge stemmed from prosecutors’ allegation that Chavez then placed the gun and a shell casing near Tera’s body to make it appear that she had shot herself.
The defense — from the moment Levi Chavez called 911 around 9 p.m. on Oct. 21, 2007 to say Tera had shot herself in the head — has contended that the 26-year-old took her own life as she reached a desperate level of depression that had largely been driven by her husband’s many extramarital affairs.
Testimony and argument in the trial lasted five weeks.
Prosecutors put 36 witnesses on the stand. They included: members of Tera’s family, her friends, a longtime New Mexico medical examiner, two veteran lawmen who testified as expert witnesses, APD officers who went to the Chavezes’ home after the 911 call, several of Levi Chavez’s paramours — including two who were fellow APD officers — and his current wife, whom he began seeing almost immediately after Tera’s death.
McKay and Keener admitted more than 220 exhibits into evidence, including the Glock handgun and more than 100 crime scene photographs. Their exhibits also included Tera’s diary and two notes a handwriting expert said she had written — which the defense characterized as suicide notes and prosecutors described as evidence that Tera was ready to move on from her relationship with Levi Chavez — all of which were found in the couple’s home.
Levi Chavez, in a surprise move, testified in his own defense. He cried as he described finding Tera dead in the couple’s home and said he is a changed man who, after her death, spoke to priests in an effort to leave his philandering ways behind.
Under a short cross-examination by McKay, Levi Chavez often grew testy. He stopped McKay on a few occasions and asked whether he could “talk to my jury.”
Serna called seven other witnesses to testify. They included Levi Chavez’s mother, the APD officer who was sharing a police car with Chavez the weekend Tera died (that officer testified with a promise of immunity after trying to exert his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination to stay off the stand) two nationally known experts on crime scene reconstruction and firearms and a “suicidologist,” who said Tera had several of the “risk factors” associated with someone headed toward suicide.
Serna admitted 29 exhibits into evidence, including an OMI photograph of Tera’s tongue — removed from her body — that showed a round burn mark near the back of the tongue. Many of the other defense exhibits were photographs, as well.
There was a lot the jury didn’t hear, too, because of bitter pretrial wrangling — much of which shook out in favor of the defense.
For example: the prosecution was barred from calling to the stand Richard Farrelly, a state Insurance Fraud Bureau agent who investigated allegations that Levi Chavez and his “cop buddies” had staged the theft of Chavez’s pickup truck as part of an insurance scam.
One of Levi Chavez’s lovers — who was also a client of Tera’s at the Los Lunas Style America salon — testified that Tera told her the truck hadn’t really been stolen. That witness, Rose Slama, also testified that she told Levi Chavez about his wife’s allegations.
Levi Chavez refuted Slama’s claims when he testified.
The prosecution’s primary theory on motive for murder was that Levi Chavez wanted to silence Tera as a potential witness against him regarding the truck.
State District Judge George P. Eichwald essentially gutted that theory when he barred Farrelly’s testimony after a motion from Serna.
The reason: Serna and prosecutors said Farrelly hadn’t turned over everything he had on the case during discovery. So Eichwald ruled that Farrelly’s testimony would be too prejudicial toward Levi Chavez.
Instead, the jury was instructed that Farrelly had received an anonymous call from the Style America where Tera worked alleging insurance fraud by Levi Chavez, and that he conducted an investigation which concluded that the allegations were “unfounded.”
Prosecutors argued over the word “unfounded,” noting that authorities had scheduled a grand jury to hear evidence in the alleged insurance fraud case, but Farrelly’s boss pulled the plug on that presentation at the last minute in 2010.
The Levi Chavez case won’t end with today’s verdict.
There’s still a civil wrongful death lawsuit, filed by Tera’s family, to be decided in state District Court in Bernalillo County.
The city of Albuquerque already has paid Tera’s family $230,000 to settle claims against itself and APD in the civil case.
That leaves Levi Chavez as the sole defendant in the civil matter, which had been on hold since his indictment to allow the criminal case to reach a conclusion.
The civil case will proceed as soon as state District Judge Ted Baca sets a date.