Ex-New Mexico officer charged with murder after using chokehold on suspect
A former police officer in New Mexico was charged Thursday with second-degree murder in the death of a detainee whom he had placed in a chokehold.
State Atty. Gen. Hector Balderas said he filed the charges against former Las Cruces police officer Christopher Smelser in the death of Antonio Valenzuela.
Police say Smelser, who is white, applied the chokehold after a foot chase in February when Valenzuela, who is Latino, fled during a traffic stop.
After the chase, Smelser can be heard on police video saying, “I’m going to [expletive] choke you out, bro.”
Valenzuela was pronounced dead at the scene. The coroner determined he died from asphyxial injuries.
Smelser was initially charged with manslaughter and later fired.
The police use of carotid holds has a troubled history, killing and seriously injuring some people.
In a statement, Balderas said he was taking over the prosecution of Smelser from the Third Judicial District Attorney’s office in Las Cruces and “focusing on appropriate charges for violent and dangerous chokeholds.”
Smelser’s attorney, Amy L. Orlando, called the new charge sad and suggested it was a political move meant to grab headlines.
“Officer Smelser used a technique that was sanctioned by the department. He was trained in the technique. And of a sudden it’s banned after and he’s a criminal,” Orlando told the Associated Press.
The revised charge came as Black Lives Matter protests have swept the nation following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Demonstrators have put pressure on police departments to change policies involving the use of force and interactions with Black, Latino and Native American residents.
New Mexico’s governor has signed legislation requiring police officers to wear body cameras as a deterrent against excessive use of force.
The death of Valenzuela generated similar protests in Las Cruces, which lies about 50 miles north of the Mexican border. Family members of Valenzuela had called for an upgraded charge against Smelser.
Some protesters said the killing illustrated the violence some Mexican Americans face from police and compared it to Floyd’s death in custody.
Last month, Balderas called for uniform use-of-force policies that would be codified in state law to require body cameras and ban chokeholds, among other measures.
As chairman of the state Law Enforcement Academy Board, Balderas in 2016 called on a committee of experts to review how each of New Mexico’s municipal and county law-enforcement agencies investigates the use of deadly force by its own officers.
A report with recommendations was drafted in 2017 but failed to gain traction as many police departments said a year later that they hadn’t even received the policy recommendations.
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