Fired New Mexico officer charged with murder in chokehold death of Latino man
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas ramped up charges against a former Las Cruces police officer after a man he put in a neck restraint died in February.
Balderas’s office, which had previously charged former officer Christopher Smelser with involuntary manslaughter, announced Thursday it is charging Smelser with second degree murder.
The attorney general said the decision was made after consulting with District Attorney Mark D’Antonio, who had previously been prosecuting the case and is now handing it over to Balderas’s office.
“We are taking over prosecution and focusing on appropriate charges for violent and dangerous chokeholds,” said Balderas.
D’Antonio said the state attorney general office was taking over given the seriousness of the charges.
“Since this incident occurred, Attorney General Hector Balderas and his staff have been in contact with my office regarding this case, as well as police and law enforcement reforms and accountability for the use of deadly force including the ban placed on chokehold restraint techniques. In the pursuit for justice and given the seriousness of the charges against Las Cruces Police Officer Smelser, we agreed that this case be adopted and prosecuted by the New Mexico Attorney General,” D’Antonio said.
The charges against Smelser stem from a confrontation Feb. 29 with Antonio Valenzuela during a traffic stop.
Valenzuela, who police said had an open warrant for a probation violation, attempted to flee on foot until Smelser stopped him and used a “vascular neck restraint technique to gain control.”
Officials said emergency medical staff were called after the incident and were unable to resuscitate Valenzuela.
Smelser was later fired after being charged last month with manslaughter.
The revised charges come amid a national reckoning over systemic racism and police brutality that was sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed when a white police officer in Minneapolis employed a similar tactic by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Chokeholds, among other police tactics, have come under fierce scrutiny by Democrats and activists who say the practice should be banned. Balderas in June called for a blanket use of force policy in New Mexico that would include requirements for officers to wear body cameras and a ban on chokeholds.
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