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Levi and the law: Chapter 2

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sometime after Levi Chavez walked free from a Sandoval County courtroom that warm July day in 2013 after being found not guilty of killing his wife in one of the most high-profile and hellacious trials in recent memory, he must have thought:

Now what?

With his life as an Albuquerque Police Department officer done, his reputation in shambles, a stack of legal bills to pay, a new wife (an officer with APD) and a new child (on top of his two kids and her one from earlier marriages) to raise, he must have wondered what sort of career to pursue next.

Car salesman? Hair stylist? Insurance agent? What color was his parachute if it could no longer be blue?

As a cop, he had experience with criminals – and, at least until the verdict, he had been labeled as one – so he sought employment at the Metropolitan Detention Center, where criminals abound and the uniforms are almost as spiffy as APD’s.

But he was rejected.

Former Albuquerque police officer Levi Chavez was found not guilty of killing his wife with his service revolver in 2007. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Former Albuquerque police officer Levi Chavez was found not guilty of killing his wife with his service revolver in 2007. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“Although qualified for the position and told in (the) interviewing process that he would be hired for a position,” reads a line in a federal lawsuit Chavez filed last month against the detective who had tried to put him behind bars, “he was ultimately not given this employment opportunity because of the charges.”

Ah, yes, those pesky murder and tampering with evidence charges. They just never look good on résumés.

But such serious illegalities aren’t necessarily deal-breakers in the legal profession. So it must have seemed logical to Chavez that, after years of his being in and out of the judicial system as his murder case slithered toward its conclusion, he might as well jump back into the system, this time on the other side of the law – the side that gets paid to be there.

As the Journal reported last Saturday, Chavez has been accepted into the University of New Mexico School of Law.

He may not have been good enough for jail, but he’s a natural for jurisprudence.

Apparently.

Getting in isn’t easy, even without a criminal record. For the fall 2015 semester, the school received 716 applications. Of those, 295 were accepted, and from those just 115, give or take, will be attending law school starting Aug. 12 – including Chavez.

Not surprisingly, news of Chavez’s acceptance was met with shock and outrage, especially among UNM law school grads and law students, many of whom seemed miffed that the judicial system in which they function could have malfunctioned so badly to have sent them a guy like Chavez.

“I wonder if under Life Experiences he listed ‘I killed my wife in cold blood,’ ” one poster opined on Facebook, which became something of a social media pillory for Chavez.

Said another Facebook ranter who was, like Chavez, accepted into law school this fall: “My class is going to be remembered as the class with the acquitted murderer. Why, UNM? Why?”

Another Facebook friend put it this way: “I am horrified.”

Mary Torres, an Albuquerque attorney of national stature (and one of the only legal eagles who had the huevos to let me use her name), was more judicious.

“I was surprised,” she said about learning of Chavez’s acceptance. “I’m a supporter of the law school. I know what the process is. I know they really look at the personal statement applicants have to submit, and so I thought, man, he must have had a heck of a personal statement.”

To apply to law school, students must submit an application, a nonrefundable $50 application fee, résumé, two to four letters of recommendation and receive a decent score on the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT.

But, as Torres suggests, it’s the personal statement that needs to wow the admissions committee.

Chavez has a lot of wows.

As murder trials go, few could match the level of salaciousness, slime and legal sideshow his trial provided. It was long in coming – nearly six years after his estranged wife, Tera Chavez, was found dead in her bed, shot through the mouth with his duty weapon, in October 2007.

Theirs had been a tortuous, fling-filled, 10-year marriage that began when Tera had become pregnant just before her 16th birthday.

And what flings! So many of his mistresses took the stand during the five-week trial that one needed a flow chart to keep them all straight. Besides the five who testified – three who were fellow Albuquerque police officers, including one he proposed to less than two months after his wife’s death – prosecutors said they could have rounded up four or five more, as if they needed further evidence to make the point.

National media dubbed him the Casanova Cop.

Perfect crime?

Prosecutors had called it the perfect murder made to look like a suicide. It had been, they contended, a way to silence her after she had threatened to spill the beans on a stolen truck/insurance fraud ring Levi Chavez and his cop buddies were engaged in.

But Chavez’s defense contended she had been a needy woman who had killed herself when she could no longer deal with his serial cheating.

So there he was, a cad of a man faced with saving his hide by explaining to jurors the damage he had done, not by killing his wife, but by making her want to kill herself.

“I thought: This is what you created; it’s your fault,” he testified as he sometimes sobbed, sometimes smirked. “Guilt, but guilt doesn’t even begin to describe it. Shame. An absence of something. She was gone. God was telling me: ‘It’s all your fault.’ ”

It was an absence of something, all right. Like scruples, morals, character.

Jurors found he had broken no laws.

And now he is a Lobo law student.

Rumors are as thick as a Constitutional Law book since the news about Chavez hit: Alumni were withdrawing their sizable donations to the law school. Extra security was planned to make sure Chavez could attend school safely. Applicants who had been passed by were preparing their own lawsuit.

None was confirmed by law professor Alfred Dennis Mathewson, who today takes his place as co-dean of the UNM law school with Sergio Pareja, also a law professor.

“I’ve heard the rumors, too, but nothing more than that,” he said. “No formal withdrawal of support has been made at the law school in connection to this admission. Currently, the law school deans are actively listening to students’ concerns and are assuring those with questions that the appropriate evaluation method was used.”

Mathewson said UNM isn’t the first to admit someone who once faced or was convicted on murder charges. In 1993, James J. Hamm entered Arizona State University law school a year after his life sentence for a 1974 drug-related murder was commuted. In 2011, Tulane University law school admitted Bruce Reilly, who had served 12 years in prison for stabbing his English professor to death in 1993.

Neither passed the bar exam in their respective states, both lacking the proper “character and fitness” to practice law because of their criminal pasts.

Which is to say that, even if Chavez successfully completes his three years of law school, the state bar could still decide that “Better Call Levi” won’t happen, based on his character and fitness.

It’s interesting to note that, of the many folks whose opinions I sought for this column, defense attorneys and regular folks were more likely to be accepting of Chavez’s new path – sort of.

“He is a free citizen, so it’s like the OJ thing in a way,” one non-lawyer friend said.

“He is a perfect candidate seeing as there is so much crime and corruption among attorneys and judges alike in our legal communities,” said another.

Wow.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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