BERNALILLO – His chest out, his shoulders back, Levi Chavez strode briskly away from the state district courthouse here on Tuesday a free man.
“I’m not surprised,” the 32-year-old former Albuquerque police officer told a throng of reporters from behind a pair of sunglasses. “I’m not guilty. I’m innocent. I told you guys that from the beginning.”
Minutes earlier, at 4:35 p.m., state District Judge George P. Eichwald took two verdict forms from his bailiff and read the news to a packed courtroom: “We, the jury, find the defendant, Levi Chavez, not guilty of first-degree murder.”
It was the official end to a long-running courtroom drama that captivated New Mexicans and drew national attention. Some national media called Chavez “Casanova Cop” due to his many mistresses, a key factor in his defense that his wife committed suicide because she was depressed over his serial affairs.
Reaction in the courtroom Tuesday reflected the gravity of the moment and the nearly six years since Chavez learned that he was under investigation for the death of Tera Chavez.
Levi Chavez did the sign of the cross, then shared an intense hug with his attorney, David Serna.
Friends and members of his family gasped audibly, began to weep, embraced each other and said: “Thank Jesus” as Eichwald read the same verdict – “not guilty” – on a second form, which asked jurors whether they believed Chavez committed evidence tampering.
On the other side of the courtroom, where Tera Chavez’s friends and family sat, there were a few tears, too.
More so, there was visible anger, disappointment and exhaustion.
Before reading the verdict, Eichwald acknowledged the jangled vibes, which had been present in his courtroom for much of the five-week trial – particularly on the day when Levi Chavez, in a move that surprised many, took the stand in his own defense.
“I’ve been observing throughout the trial a lot of animosity,” Eichwald said. “You can cut the tension with a knife in here.”
Eichwald instructed Tera’s family to leave the courtroom first after the verdict was read and asked the Chavez family to wait a few minutes before departing.
Tera’s family left quickly, as the judge was telling Levi Chavez that he was “released of all (his) obligations to this court.”
Outside, members of Tera’s family declined to comment until, just as he was getting into his car to drive away, Tera’s father, Joseph Cordova, answered “no” to a reporter who asked whether the Cordovas were feeling any closure.
Then he added: “Justice was not served” and left with his wife, Theresa Cordova.
A short time later, Levi Chavez walked out of the courthouse surrounded by cameras, reporters and family members. When he arrived at his own car, a reporter asked what he plans to do now.
“I’m going to go to church, pray my rosary and thank my Virgin Mary,” he said. “There’s a lot of good things coming my way.”
The charges were leveled against Chavez in April 2011. That’s when prosecutors from the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office charged in a two-count indictment that he had shot Tera Chavez, 26, once in the mouth on Oct. 19, 20 or 21, 2007, in the couple’s home near Los Lunas and tried to make it look like a suicide.
During closing arguments last week, Senior Trial Attorney Bryan McKay narrowed the state’s theory on Tera’s death date to some time around 1 a.m. on Oct. 21, 2007, a Sunday.
From the beginning, Levi Chavez and Serna have insisted that Tera Chavez committed suicide at the peak of her despondency, which had been driven largely by her husband’s many extramarital affairs.
All but two of the jurors declined to comment after their verdict was read. Those two said there was not enough evidence to prove the prosecution’s case.
‘Distrust of media’
Serna had some choice words for reporters in the courthouse parking lot, saying his client had a “healthy distrust of the media,” who he said had “regurgitated” false allegations about Levi Chavez for years.
Levi Chavez didn’t answer when asked whether he will try to get his job back at APD.
Serna, asked the same question, said: “I doubt it.”
Levi Chavez was fired from APD 10 days after his indictment. At the time, Police Chief Ray Schultz said Levi Chavez didn’t show up for an Internal Affairs interview, which was grounds for termination.
Serna said his client was “confident” throughout the trial and during the day and a half jurors were deliberating.
He also said Chavez had planned to testify “from Day One.”
“He told me when he hired me that he planned on testifying on his own behalf,” Serna said.
Growing visibly angry, the well-known defense attorney directed his ire at 13th Judicial District Attorney Lemuel Martinez and his staff for trying to make a case out of a “made-up pile of lies” in the first place.
Martinez “lacked the courage to declare that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to bring these charges,” Serna said. “He has put my client and his family through years and years of misery that never should’ve been visited upon them.”
He accused Martinez of “allowing his political future” to dictate his decision to prosecute Levi Chavez.
Taken aback by verdict
McKay and his co-counsel in the case, Assistant District Attorney Anne Keener, refused to answer several questions from reporters as they left the courthouse Tuesday. Keener directed questions to Martinez.
Reached by telephone later Tuesday, Martinez, who made only one brief appearance in the courtroom during the entire trial, said he was “taken aback” by the jury’s verdict.
“I thought we were going to get a guilty verdict,” he said, adding that he was satisfied with McKay’s and Keener’s work on the case. “Twelve people heard evidence – they heard every piece of evidence – and came back with not guilty. We accept it … And it reinforces the American system of justice.”
Martinez said some of the evidence that was barred from the case may have hurt the state’s case. In particular, he pointed to Eichwald’s severe limiting of testimony on prosecutors’ key theory of Levi Chavez’s motive to kill Tera: to keep her from testifying against him and his “cop buddies” in an insurance fraud scheme involving Levi Chavez’s truck.
“It would’ve reinforced our theory of the case,” Martinez said of the testimony and evidence related to the truck that was kept out of the trial.
Addressing Serna’s claims of a politically motivated prosecution, Martinez said: “If we didn’t have any evidence, we wouldn’t have gone to trial.”
Defense targeted detective
Serna’s primary target during the trial was Aaron Jones, who investigated Tera’s death for the Valencia County Sheriff’s Department.
Serna referred to Jones as a “dirty, dishonest cop” and tried to convince the jury that his investigation was shoddy, incomplete and vindictive.
Jones was in the courtroom to hear the verdict read on Tuesday.
In the parking lot afterward, he took several moments to collect himself before answering reporters’ questions.
“This is just an unbelievably sad day,” Jones said. “The jury had their work cut out for them. Unfortunately, they didn’t get to hear everything; there was a lot missing, and there were a lot of rulings (pretrial) that didn’t go the prosecution’s way.”
Of his investigation, he said: “I absolutely stand by it, and I’ll never make any apologies for what I did in this case,” which he described as “unconventional” because the suspect was a police officer.
Jones said the last five-plus years have been difficult for everyone involved – most of all the Cordova family.
“They’re the strongest people I’ve ever met in my life,” he said. “They’re good people, and they’re the true victims of the bad things that happen in our world.”