LAS CRUCES, N.M. — A New Mexico police officer got emotional on the witness stand Tuesday at his former professional partner’s murder trial when recalling the danger that he believed he faced in trying to arrest a man who died in a 2020 struggle with officers.
Las Cruces Officer Andrew Tuton said he believed Antonio Valenzuela had a gun and was reaching for it during his struggle with Tuton and Officer Christopher Smelser, who is charged with murder in the death. In the end, though, no gun was found on Valenzuela.
Tuton, who paused to gather himself when describing the dangers in the encounter, said he became concerned about a gun when he felt one of Valenzuela’s hands moving around. “I knew in that moment I was going to get shot,” Tuton said.
Smelser eventually put Valenzuela into a chokehold that prosecutors alleged gradually ended his life. Smelser was later fired.
A medical examiner had concluded Valenzuela died from asphyxial injuries due to physical restraint — and that methamphetamine in his system was a contributing factor in his death.
The autopsy found Valenzuela had hemorrhaging in his eyes and eyelids, which is indicative of asphyxiation and may occur when the neck or chest is compressed. His neck had a deep muscle hemorrhage, his Adam’s apple was crushed, and there was swelling in his brain.
The struggle grew from a traffic stop of a truck in which Valenzuela was a passenger. Valenzuela, who was wanted on a warrant for a probation violation, bolted from officers once he exited the truck.
When catching up with Valenzuela in a dirt lot next to a church, officers took him to the ground, struggled to handcuff him, struck him with their hands and shot at him with a Taser.
Then Smelser used the chokehold. Once Valenzuela stopped moving and was handcuffed, Tuton put one of his knees on his back as Valenzuela lay on his stomach. Smelser then took Tuton’s place, putting a knee on the back of Valenzuela, who was unconscious.
At one point during the encounter, Smelser profanely told Valenzuela that he was going to “choke you out, bro.”
Tuton also said Valenzuela had reached for pockets on his pants, where police found an all-in-one pliers set that contained a knife that folded out. The defense characterized it as a knife, while prosecutors called it a tool.
When Tuton was getting emotional during his trial testimony, prosecutor Zachary Jones commented that he didn’t remember the officer getting so upset at an earlier hearing in the case.
Under questioning from Smelser’s attorney, Amy Orlando, Tuton denied he was faking his emotional reaction.
Orlando had previously told jurors that officers repeatedly urged Valenzuela to stop resisting and that the force used on Valenzuela before the chokehold didn’t faze him.
Orlando said physical restraint alone didn’t kill Valenzuela, explaining that the autopsy found he also experienced the toxic effects of methamphetamine use.
Valenzuela’s death led to Smelser’s termination and a settlement in which the city agreed to pay Valenzuela’s family $6.5 million and ban the use of chokeholds by its police officers.