LAS CRUCES, N.M. — A New Mexico judge has cleared a former police officer of criminal charges after he was accused of killing a suspect with a chokehold more than two years ago.
Defense attorneys for former Las Cruces Police Officer Christopher Smelser had argued that prosecutors failed to prove to prove he knew his actions were dangerous and created a risk of death or great bodily harm to Antonio Valenzuela, 40, after he fled from a traffic stop on Feb. 29, 2020.
The trial started Monday. Judge Douglas Driggers on Thursday sided with Smelser’s lawyers, ruling there was insufficient evidence for the trial to continue and dismissing the second-degree murder charge filed against Smelser.
Authorities said Smelser, 29, and another police officer, Andrew Tuton, chased Valenzuela, who was wanted on a warrant for a probation violation, after he bolted from officers after his vehicle was stopped..
The two policemen caught up with Valenzuela, struggled and Tuton testified that he believed Valenzuela had a gun and was reaching for it. But prosecutors said no gun was found.
Prosecutors said Smelser eventually put Valenzuela into a chokehold that gradually ended his life. Smelser was later fired from the police department and indicted in Valenzuela’s death.
A medical examiner concluded Valenzuela died from asphyxial injuries due to physical restraint and that the methamphetamine in his system was a contributing factor in his death.
The small southern New Mexico city agreed earlier to pay Valenzuela’s family $6.5 million and ban the use of chokeholds by its police officers.
Diggers heard arguments about dismissing the case after prosecutors called 13 witnesses to testify and rested their case.
Smelser’s lawyers also argued that the medical examiner was unable to say if Valenzuela would still have died if methamphetamine had not been discovered in his system.