LAS CRUCES, N.M. — A judge in New Mexico on Thursday dismissed a second-degree murder charge against a former Las Cruces police officer who was accused of killing a man by using a chokehold.
The charge against Christopher Smelser, 29, was dropped by Judge Douglas Driggers via a directed verdict after half an hour of arguments, the Las Cruces Sun News reported. Smelser had been accused of killing Antonio Valenzuela, 40, on Feb. 29, 2020, by using a vascular neck restraint.
“The issue before the court is whether or not substantial evidence has been presented to this jury to show that this defendant intended to commit a crime,” Driggers said in court after hearing arguments, according to the Sun News. “That intent was to cause the death or great bodily injury of the victim.”
Driggers ruled that the prosecution failed to provide enough evidence to move forward in a trial, KOB-TV reported.
Smelser and his partner with the Las Cruces Police Department, Officer Andrew Tuton, chased Valenzuela after he ran from a traffic stop, the Sun News reported. Police officials said that Valenzuela had an open warrant because of a parole violation and that officers had fired a stun gun at him twice as he ran away, The New York Times reported.
After a brief altercation, Smelser put Valenzuela in the chokehold maneuver.
Valenzuela died an hour later, according to the newspaper. An autopsy said Valenzuela died from asphyxia or suffocation. A high concentration of methamphetamine also contributed to his death, according to the report.
Smelser was fired by the police department later in 2020 and a grand jury indicted him on one count of second-degree murder, the Sun News reported. Valenzuela’s family received $6.5 million in a settlement with the City of Las Cruces, in 2020, according to the newspaper.
In a statement, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said that Driggers “got it wrong by not allowing the jury to rule on the evidence of the illegal chokehold.”
“The judge’s decision today essentially acquits Smelser without the opportunity for the empaneled jury of Smelser’s peers to consider the evidence against him,” Balderas said.
Amy L. Orlando and Mark Pickett, attorneys for Smelser, did not immediately respond to telephone calls and email messages on Thursday, according to the Times.
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